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To carve memories: The belt of El Señor de Lázaro in

Oaxaca
garlandmag.com/article/el-senor-de-lazaro/

September 14, 2018

María del Carmen Castillo Cisneros

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Spanish version

The challenge is to reproduce a belt woven in 1863 that belongs to the Church of San
Francisco Tutla. This mission is fulfilled by Eustacia Antonio Mendoza, a Zapotec woman who
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is native of Santo Tomás Jalieza, at the end of 2017. In the process, what is recovered is not
only the design of a forgotten pattern, but also the memories of two Oaxacan towns. This is an
account of the El Señor de Lázaro belt, a strip woven in a waist loom that recounts lives of the
weavers of Jalieza and the devotees of Tutla. It is an object, among many, with a wonderful
story to tell.

Abigail Mendoza tied my waist for the first time to a loom and from there, to one of the columns
of the Textile Museum in the city of Oaxaca. Since then, my navel was linked with magenta
threads to the earth and she became my teacher. The ability to weave other possible worlds on
small canvases is the confirmation of the existence of diverse ways of being that coexist, with
each other, in a pluricultural country like Mexico. Years later, Abigail would tell me briefly that
her mother had replicated an old sash, thus recovering a graphic pattern that, in Jalieza, had
been forgotten. Her approach, with the hope of documenting the event and giving an account
of the textile identity that her people have maintained for hundreds of years, is the motive of
the small ethnographic research that I present here.

Undoubtedly, textiles protect knowledge, some of it familiar and so much of it hidden in the
depth of intertwined wefts and warps. This space allows us to approach, through those who
create them, a story that begins to weave. For this, I will talk about the Mendoza women, the
town where they live, their workshop and work as artisans. In a second part, I will briefly
introduce some references to the Christ of Lazarus in Tutla, and then tie them both in a third
scenario that introduces our cultural object: the girdle. Later, I will discover an engraved stone
that opens questions about materiality, memory, and cultural identities.

From my job as an anthropologist interested in the expressions and textile dynamics of the
Oaxacan people, it is an obligatory task to point out the influences and confluences that
sociocultural events like this one give us, since they constitute reflections of cultural memories
that are written today as evidence of ongoing relationships between tradition and modernity.

Las Mendoza: Artisans of Jalieza

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It is midday, the sun falls on the patio of the Mendoza family. Eustacia or Doña Tacha, as she
is called affectionately, weaves a ribbon that will be applied to the shirt of her grandson.
Between the play of comb, yoke, shuttle, machete and threads, she advances with the skill that
only someone who has been weaving since the age of six, can have. Meanwhile, Veronica, her
youngest daughter, does not let the sewing machine pedal stop and Abigail approaches a
wooden bench to join the conversation while her long black hair continues to dry in the cool air.
All these Mendoza, daughters of Doña Tacha, weave. Each one has a specialty and they all
take family work out of the workshop. The father also wove and the paternal aunt named
Maria, who lives with them, is an authentic authority of the loom. María and Tacha, as the
most experienced, are the stalwarts who stick more to the traditional, following the well-known
count of 21 threads in their creations. Abigail, who is also a celebrated woman in her craft,
weaves very thin pieces that are legendary. Noemí and Eva do it in the same way and
Verónica also knows how to weave, design and sew. They have all mastered the traditional
counts of 5, 11, 21, 25 and 45 threads, but they also innovate in their creations.

They all live in Santo Tomás Jalieza, a town 25 km away from the capital of the state,
belonging to the district of Ocotlán, region of Valles Centrales in Oaxaca. Although recognised
as a town of weavers, its name, Jalieza, seems to derive from the Zapotec xana (below) and
lieza (church) meaning “under the church” or also, according to other versions could mean

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“extract the earth.” Regardless of this, the truth is that the current life of the people takes place
in courtyards and corridors where women and men of different ages tie their waists to looms
and columns to create delicate pieces full of colour and charm that make up a textile craft that
distinguishes them from other towns.

Doña Tacha recalls with laughter, the smacks her mother gave her if she could not get the
fabric right. She stresses that, when someone starts knitting, the important thing is to make a
very simple design while paying special attention that the edge is very straight. There one
begins to master the art and technique known as labrado de urdimbre, wrought warp.

Thus, from a very early age, lying on the floor, with no mathematics to guide her designs,
without drawing on paper, just counting threads and experimenting, Tacha weaves threads
making thoughtful images emerge and preserving stories. All her daughters learned the trade
very early and Veronica, the youngest, began at age four copying her sisters. Therefore, the
way in which these women relate to the loom is vital and immediate.

In the words of Abigail: “The loom is part of you. You stay with it and there live your feelings, It
shapes how you are at a certain moment. You also release your sight, your lungs, your
muscles. We can notice the spirit that the person who made a textile because of the way it is
made and the colours used.”

It is evident that, in the loom, memories are captured. When it is not by commission, weaving
becomes a creative, personal and unique act. The Mendoza say that it is something that
relaxes them when it is done for pleasure, when it is theirs. Weaving is by far Tacha’s favourite
activity. She prefers it before anything else. She spends much time weaving in the same
position and can at the same time, be aware of everything that happens in the family yard.
With Abigail, we see the opposite. She prefers weaving while sitting on a chair and it is much
better working when under pressure. This makes it clear that each “artisan”, as they prefer to
call themselves, is different, as are the relationships they establish with their looms.

Sometimes, Tacha dreams that she weaves beautiful things and this makes her want to create
them. She says that when she weaves she does not copy other artisans, but she does take
ideas. Her daughters annoy her, saying that she likes to always do the same kind of things, but
she argues that each piece is different, even though she prefers certain colours and figures.
The range of colours includes cherry, black and beige and, although they encourage it to
change from time to time, she always returns to the same tones, always including beige.

The Mendoza have been weaving with fine threads for a long time, since Aunt Maria in the
seventies visited the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico and saw some strips woven
with thinner threads than those normally used in the town. That is why thereafter they were
perfected in the fine wire technique. They make bags, small and large girdles, backpacks,
purses and other pieces that respond not only to the pursuit of a tradition but to the demands
of the current market. They have learned to combine their textiles with other materials such as
leather bags and later they started making the famous loom backpacks that became an
artisanal boom.

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Although it seems a structured and well thought-out trade, it provides great freedom. Many
times they do not know what they are going to do until they sit down to do it. On occasion, they
can weave in the surrounding of great activity and noise and others not. The bracelets are, for
example, more automatic, because as Abigail says, they do them with extreme skill and
cadence no matter what happens around. On the other hand, when it comes to a new design,
they like to be alone, to concentrate. If someone gives opinions or ideas they are distracted
and interrupt the process. Therefore, when necessary, the weaver is left alone with her loom to
do what she wants.

A few months ago, Abigail wove something new for a contest. She started drawing and every
time she tried to start knitting, she could not succeed. Time passed and it was up to a day
before the delivery that managed to she managed to realise the design. She did it all at once.
As it was a new and complicated piece, she had to concentrate and be inspired very well to
get it out. She had very bad mood, assured her relatives.

On the contrary, Doña Tacha never draws. She resorts to her imagination, visualises it and
weaves it little by little. She prefers to do it slowly, because the time pressure worries her and
makes her nervous.

Good mood is an important part of the fabric because the threads can feel, if they perceive
otherwise, they can become entangled or refuse to fulfil a design. Hence, the emotion can
affect the threads in the piece. If at the end, they feel proud of their work, judging it as beautiful
and well made, there is no doubt that there was also love. On the other hand, if they feel bad,
they know that the fabric will be difficult to weave. When this happens, it is better to stop
everything and return once you find enough desire. With the commissions it happens
differently. Then the emotion of both parties is involved, the good or bad connection is difficult
to overcome. In each attempt, it is the loom and instruments are asked to work well together.

Cotton threads dyed naturally or not, and threads of other materials, have always been used. It
is known that red and cherry are colours that prevailed in ancient textiles and this tonality was
acquired with the use of cochineal. Previously the threads were made in the community. It is
said that when people started weaving, they were few and they met in one place in the
community with subsequent trips to other places to sell their product. Mainly women ventured
out and took three directions: Tlacolula, Oaxaca and Guatemala. When they marched towards
the latter, they travelled with a row of donkeys and while they were leaving the town they rang
the bells. Let’s say they left early in case something happened on the road and they could not
get back alive. At that time, Maria points out that it was just muleteers and difficult roads.

We remain seated on the patio as the sun rises. Tacha entangles her work in order to re-
weave it. The sun warms our heads and with it grows the doubt of whether the loom and the
sashes came from elsewhere. Then Maria comments:

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I believe that it originated in our lands and although they say that we come from Guatemala, it
is better to presume we took it there. There is much argument, all will have something of the truth.
It is part of how a reality is becoming and transforming. Unlike Teotitlán, where it is known that
the loom came with the conquest, in Jalieza doubt remains. Before there was a market, the women
gathered to knit and when the tourists arrived they hid because they did not speak Spanish and
they felt awkward to talk. Now, on the contrary, almost nobody speaks Zapotec.

Weaving is the common denominator shared by being Jalieza’s people, so they say: “We all
do it in the community, but not all of them do it outside of it.”

A scarred Christ: The Lord of Lazarus in Tutla


And the one who was dead came out, with bound hands and bandaged feet, and his face
wrapped in a shroud. Jesus said to them: Let him go.

(John 11:43)

Oh, I thought; How many times the genie


thus sleeps in the depths of the soul,
and a voice like Lazarus waits
for him to say, “Get up and walk!”

Gustavo Adolfo Béquer

There is no doubt that Sunday is a good day when you want to visit a Church. It is assumed
that the doors will be wide open and that someone will be there to answer any questions.
However, it does not always happen that way. Due to the earthquakes that occurred in Mexico
last September 2017, the church of Tutla, like many others in the state of Oaxaca, is closed
waiting to be repaired. The damage is not so alarming, but in any case, they are not allowed to
perform mass inside, which is why a chapel has been improvised where the liturgical offices
are carried out. Therefore, the image of the Christ that carried the girdle was not visible to us.
However, I went with the authorities from the municipality who very kindly opened the temple,
allowing me to contemplate the image for a few minutes.

The town of San Francisco Tutla is just twenty minutes from the capital of the state and its
political-social organisation, like that of Santo Tomás Jalieza, is based on “internal normative
systems” previously called “uses and customs” and therefore the political authorities have
interference in religious matters and vice versa.

A crucified Jesus Christ with the title of the Señor de Lázaro is venerated in that locality. Well
hung in the largest niche on the left side of the nave of the church and behind a glass, it rests
(if you could say so) hanging accompanied by flowers, ornaments and a white cloth hanging
from the cross drawn with various motifs. The is the surprising presence of a thin woven strip
that surrounds the torso at chest height where followed by a fret interspersed with tiny stars, it
reads head-on: SR. DE LAZARO RESTAURACION 2017, a legend carved with a combination
of cherry, beige and green colours.

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Without being the patron saint of the people, the El Cristo de Lázaro or Señor de Lázaro, as he
is sometimes called, is extremely helpful. He is solicited for healing by both sick and well
people. The Resurrection of Lazaro de Betania is represented in two annual celebrations in
Tutla. One takes place the first days of January around the celebration of the “Sweet Name”,
when the image is transferred to the main altar and, the other, on the Sunday after the
celebration of the fifth Friday of Lent, where he goes to visit the people accompanying the
Nazarene and the Virgen de la Soledad.

The miraculous image is followed by faithful devotees from other parts of Oaxaca, led each
year by a steward in charge of the aforementioned festivities. In the same way, they count on a
custodian of personal effects who protects the original belt. The image of the Christ who is
venerated corresponds, as in many churches, to that of the crucified one. However, although
he is prostrate on the cross, he represents the Jesus who during his public life made the
miracle of resurrection to Lazarus. That moment when, after several days, Jesus calls him from
the tomb and when leaving unties his bandages and shrouds in order to resume life. It is ironic
then that Christ himself is bound with a single object: the girdle.

Replicating a traditional fabric more than 150 years old

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JOSÉ M. LÓPEZ 22 DE SEPTIEMBRE DE 1863 said the belt that, one afternoon in
December, Tacha held in her hands agreeing to replicate. She did not know what she was
getting into, but seeing the indecipherable pattern contained on the sash prompted the “yes”

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that she gave in response to the people from Tutla.

It turns out that, in the year of 2017, the Señor de Lázaro’s steward wanted to give a new belt
to the Christ as a sign of his commitment. The image had recently been restored and,
therefore, it was thought that the sash could also be replaced by a new one in order to
preserve the original in a good condition. So, the then mayor of Tutla entrusted Gabriela
Antonio Alonso, an inhabitant of the agency, who had family in the town of Jalieza, to help
contact the right craftswomen to do the work that the steward wanted to commission. It was
known that that old belt came from that town and that today they were still weaving strips of
that style. In mid-December, the people of Tutla visited Jalieza in search of the best weaver to
replicate the piece and that is how they found the Mendoza workshop.

From the first moment, there was something about which all the Mendoza noticed: they had
never embroidered that pattern in their workshop and they had not seen it woven in other
workshops of the town as far as their memory went. From the outset, they found it very difficult
to achieve that task for two great reasons as soon as they began. Firstly, they had been given
only a week to do the work and second that it was a design they did not know and had to learn
afresh.

But this did not deter them. When they were asked who could make the piece, they all agreed
that it would undoubtedly be Tacha as a great repository of traditional weaving; while Vero and
the other daughters would support with the count of threads, possible drawings, finishes and
other necessities that the work implied. Tacha, as if swallowing large skeins, paused a moment
and then agreed to comply with the assignment, accepting loudly the commitment to the
majordomos in a timely manner. Today she confesses that the challenge, while it excited her,
entailed a daunting effort on her part. Seeing the girdle caused her mixed feelings: a fear of not
being able to achieve the task and determination to attempt it. She asked the Señor de Lázaro
for strength and devoted herself fully to the task. She spent the first hours fixated on that
ancient sash made of thin, shiny threads.

It is believed that the man who made the original belt was from Jalieza and that his name was
José María López as recorded by the piece. His name is there and, although it may also be
that he has donated it and that is why his name was put, it is an unlikely hypothesis because it
is known that only whoever weaves something includes their name. It seems that some of the
descendants of the late José María lived in Tutla and that is why the belt arrived there as a gift,
but unquestionably the strip was made in Jalieza with the technique used in the town since
always, as the pattern is similar to the ones they currently weave. The date inscribed is striking
because it is not customary to include any date except, the date when something is drawn up.
This reveals two interesting aspects: both the antiquity of more than 150 years of the piece and
the presence of a design then used and whose use was discontinued or replaced without
leaving any apparent record.

In terms of the raw material used, Abigail ensures that the yarn is very fine, a blend of silk and
cotton. The thread is difficult to weave because it is slippery, which makes the belt soft and
light at the same time. Something that caught her attention was the brightness and the
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absence of fading in the colour. The shades of cherry, beige and green are still perfect.

Doña Tacha recalls having rescued a few years ago the design of a woman who went to the
countryside carrying her baby with an old textile and she recorded the pattern. Proud of her
designs, she develops a large sample book in shades of pale pink and blue, where she has
almost all the figures she weaves in her textiles as a woven memory woven. In it there are all
kinds of figures, such as insects, flowers and representations of people. Some of the
anthropomorphic figures make or carry something, such as the woman who goes to the
countryside to give water to men, or who is carrying a baby. There are differences between
how they dress one another. One wears an elaborate costume while the other has a simpler
dress, which speaks of different moments and activities of the everyday life of Jalieza.

Many designs recall myths such as the siren, which was brought by the Spaniards and is
frequently included in many strips. Others include double-headed eagles or pomegranates that
are also found within the iconography of the town church. The strips contain references of past
and present; traditional iconographies and recent creations. Although sometimes, some of the
meanings are forgotten and you can only say that they are part of the tradition, it is still
relevant that they continue to play a role in Jalieza’s textile culture.

Replicating that belt entailed, from the beginning, great interest for the Mendoza in terms of
history, the type of threads used and the design of a forgotten pattern. Without a doubt, the
challenge was great if we add that the original weaving was perfect. The skill of José María
provided an inspiration and opportunity for Doña Tacha to show her great skill as an artisan of
the strings.

The authorities of Tutla granted special permission for the belt to stay in the workshop of the
Mendoza while the replica was woven and a week later, after the agreed deadline for delivery,
the steward returned for his order. Tacha worked tirelessly as she remained focused on
fulfilling the mission. Deep inside she knew that it was a good thing to do in spite of the
required expertise and limited time. After an arduous week of work, she delivered it. A few
months after the mission was completed, Tacha notes that making the piece made her feel
very good. They said that work touches the heart because the loom can feel. The week after
the delivery, Tacha could not walk. Her body was crippled, but she had succeeded.

Carving memories in stones and warps

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While we talk, the threads Tacha gathers with rhythmic movements quickly become woven
designs. She has been absent because now she is tying the threads of her thought. She drops
the comb and says that, now you think about it, the fringe of the belt is very similar to the

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design that can be found on one of three petroglyphs that belong to the community.

If we think of the second possible meaning of Jalieza “to extract the earth”, it seems that
something must have happened for its inhabitants to take the earth, in a metaphorical sense,
and move to the part of the valley where the current community is located. It is known that
before, they lived at the foot of the mountain near a basin where two rivers flowed, in the place
known as the Mangalito. There, among green grass, dwells an engraved stone surrounded by
hills. As we walk to get closer to it, Abigail tells me that the stone has always been there,
sheltered by the intense blue of the sky that protects arid lands. She used to go to school with
her classmates and mark the figures they saw in relief while they were told stories of charms
and places of wealth hidden beneath them. He tells us that on several occasions they have
tried to remove the stone to take it to the village, but far from achieving it, the stone became
more entrenched. Next to it there are two others where you can see fuzzily simpler engravings
that seem to represent the Orion constellation.

“The stone of the letter” as it is named, shows engravings on three surfaces and according to
surveys carried out by archaeologists of the INAH-Oaxaca in 2015, it is a carved stone dating
from the Post Classic period (1200-1521 dC), final period of the city-states that are
distinguished by the presence of cacicazgos (chiefdoms) just before the Spanish conquest.
One of the three faces of the stone reveals a kind of serpent or eel with fins in ascending form
and another, a flower or star; both, reasons that could be related to the design present in the
1863 strip.

Without the data that allows me to delve into the cultural context of that stone, it should be
understood as a multivocal object related to different sociocultural fields. The reason for
attributing the embroidery design to it is the manner in which a people legitimises, through an
object, the authenticity and textile identity of which they are carriers. In terms of heritage, this
stone serves as a resource that, accompanied by orality, supports the identity of a town of
weavers.

Ethnography as a method for finer spinning

A belt contains, ties, supports, binds. It is usually placed in the middle of the body, marking a
kind of equator around the waist, sometimes with one or several turns. It is usually worn over
other garments and basically serves as an ornament. The strips are part of the traditional
clothing of both men and women in many indigenous peoples of Mexico and, in the case
presented, constitutes a textile that surrounds the image of a crucified Christ.

It is, in both cases, a garment that envelops and in the cultures of Mexico “the act of wrapping”
that involves turns, directions or specific accounts is found in expressions that are not only
manifest in clothing, but also in the culinary, the ritual and events that are an important part of
a given culture. By this I mean the variety of techniques used to make and wrap tamales, the
ways in which food is distributed in a celebration, the ways of wrapping a newborn, the labour
of childbirth or in death, or the turns of a rooster in the air during a healing ritual.

It is evident that culture manifests itself in many ways and a very important one is through the
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ways of dressing and what we decide is worthy of being dressed. Added to this are the various
techniques, materials and other resources used to create a garment. To dress is to wrap the
body and forms a fundamental part of daily and festive rituals. Therefore, the Jalieza belt is
part of a material culture that demonstrates the use, creation and production of a piece that
involves not only waists and Christs, but the ideology of being and belonging to a people of
weavers that through different generations. It activates, at its own rhythm, the objects of its
culture.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the text presented is a first approach to address and
document a fact of relevance for two Oaxacan localities. In the case of Jalieza, the recovery of
a pattern from the replica of the belt and its possible relationship with the engraved stone and
with it the link to a shared worldview and ritualism among the Zapotecs of the Valles Centrales
evokes interesting symbolic contents that sustain and legitimise an enduring textile tradition for
this town of weavers. For its part, for the residents of Tutla, the long-standing presence of a
woven object that is part of the most important image within its church, also expresses the
continuity of a cult that, through generations, remains dynamic between its inhabitants.

Having said that, this embryonic account seeks to establish a useful background for an
upcoming in-depth study that considers the importance of restoring the original piece, thereby
allowing other culturally relevant elements to come to light and nurture the history of localities
involved

Anthropology is a discipline responsible for detailing, through ethnography, the multiplicity of


relationships that the human being engages during the process of making a culture. This
allows, as with textile artisans, step by step weaving threads in the careful path of knowledge
creation. Ethnographic work requires thinking the threads and patiently plotting them up to
imagine different ways of understanding social realities that form the unfinished stories of a
country as diverse culturally as Mexico.

This work makes anthropologists artisans. We carve meticulously, giving room to the multiple
voices that exist to achieve a historical fabric that reflects the most comprehensive memory.
Our research is at the service of those who give the image a reality.

Author
María del Carmen Castillo Cisneros, PhD in Social Anthropology
from the University of Barcelona and research professor at the
National Institute of Anthropology and History. Since 2001 she has
worked with indigenous peoples in the state of Oaxaca, highlighting
her ethnographic work with Tacuate, Mixe, Mixtec and Zapotec
peoples. Her PhD thesis on Mixe ritualism received the Fray
Bernardino de Sahagún Award in 2015. Currently, she coordinates
the Oaxaca team of the National Ethnography Program of the
Indigenous Regions of Mexico, directs Cuadernos del Sur, a social
science journal and presides over the Advisory Council of the School of Social Sciences of the
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UDLAP. Amazed by the manifestations of a cultural diversity that surpasses and tries to know,
since 2003, she has been living in the city of Oaxaca, where she intersperses the days
between anthropology, writing and cooking, three muses that become more interwoven each
day in her life. She follows closely the issue of textile plagiarism and is developing an
anthropological perspective on the blouse of Tlahuitoltepec.

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