Botanical Dyes and Motifs in the Textiles of Lago Atitlán

This past April, my husband and I enjoyed a long weekend along the banks of Lago Atitlán in Guatemala. Getting there from Guatemala City was a 5-hour, bumpy and circuitous ride up the mountains. When we arrived, it was almost dark, and the fog obscured a full view, but what I could see was beautiful. The lake seemed to go on forever.

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(Source)

Lago Atitlán was once called “the most beautiful lake in the world” by German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Lago Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America at 1,049 feet (320 meters) deep and is approximately 12 kilometers long. It is surrounded by villages whose inhabitants are Tz’utujil, an ethnic group of the Maya civilization.

The vegetation is lush and abundant with fruit trees and flowering greenery. Coffee beans grow along the mountainsides and locals work at harvesting them for exporting.

They say that this mountain top resembles the face of a Maya ancestor.

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The villages each have their own personalities. We stayed at San Pedro La Laguna which draws backpackers from all over the world. The streets along the banks of the river are dotted with bars and hostels catering to youthful travelers. We stayed in a one-bedroom apartment in the home of an English teacher, a short walk from restaurants and coffee bars but far enough away from the noise. My goal was to visit San Juan La Laguna, a neighboring village known for its cooperatives of women weavers. For 10 quetzales, we took a dusty 10-minute tuk-tuk ride to get there. Our first stop was at the Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico. According to their brochure:

We are a multigenerational collective of 48 women weavers from San Juan La Laguna. We work together to support each other and our families through the sales of our traditionally crafted textiles since 1971.

We met Cristina, a member of the cooperative, who explained the spinning and dying process. The textiles are woven out of locally grown white and brown cotton.

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The cotton is picked, cleaned and hand spun with a support spindle and bowl, as demonstrated by Cristina.

Cristina then explained each of the natural dyes used to add color. All of the dyes are extracted from flora that grows around Lago Atitlán.

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To obtain shades of red, they crush the seeds from the pods of the achiote tree (scientific name: Bixa orellana). The pulverized seeds are heated in water to produce rich reds.

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I was surprised to learn that the avocado seed produces a dye. The seed is dried and left until it begins to disintegrate. It is then ground and boiled to release a green dye.

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The buds and seed pods of the pericon plant (scientific name: Hypericum perforatum) produce green and yellow colors. The plant is native to Mexico and Guatemala and grows wild in previously cultivated land or near milpas.

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The bark of the ilamo (a type of birch tree) produces red and yellow dyes, from the outer and inner bark, respectively.

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Flor de Muerto (or Mexican Marigold) is used for yellow dyes.

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Sacatinta (scientific name: Justicia tinctorea) produces dyes of various shades, hence its common name (“saca” from the verb “sacar” meaning to remove or take out; “tinta” for dye). According to Cristina, you can get as many as five hues from one pot of sacatinta.

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We watched as the skein of cotton yarn began to turn a deep purple upon oxygenation.

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To remember our visit, we selected this textile dyed with indigo. It is meant to be a wrap although we plan to use it as a decorative element at the end of a bed.

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Cristina explained the motifs on the textile. The milpa (or maize field) is an ancient agricultural method of the Maya. Areas of land are cultivated to grow corn and other crops. After a couple of years of harvest, the ground is left fallow to regenerate itself. Typically, women use the back strap loom to weave while men use a larger foot-pedal loom. The figure of a woman, or ixoq in the Tz’utujil language, is a recurring motif.

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The árbol de ilamo, used so frequently for its dyes, is represented.

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The next motif represents a freshwater crab found in Lago Atitlán, followed by a fish.

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The last motif in this textile is of Tikal, a pre-Columbian city from the Maya civilization.

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To learn more, we brought home this book about the botanical dyes of the region. It is organized in three major sections covering natural dyes from trees, fruits and plants. Each section contains recipes for creating the natural dyes and examples of the colors that each produces.

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You can find the Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botánico on Facebook (@ColoresBotanico).

Weekend in Antigua, Guatemala

After the week-long MBA Field Study, my husband and I headed over to Antigua, Guatemala for a long weekend. Antigua was originally the capital of Guatemala until an earthquake destroyed it in 1773. This colonial city is surrounded by mountains and volcanoes. The city is full of history, beautiful architecture and ruins, abundant with arts and crafts, and culinary delights. We didn’t have time but I would like to return and tour a coffee plantation and climb the volcano.

The Hotel

We stayed at the Hotel San Rafael. This former home boasts a lush and tranquil inner courtyard with fountains, wide walkways, ample seating areas, excellent food and large elegant rooms and suites. Here are the fountains in the center courtyard and the comfy sitting area outside our room where we spent evenings talking and enjoying cocktails.

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This smaller courtyard was behind our room. We could hear the soothing water from our bathroom window.

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The Architecture

If you do a search for Antigua, undoubtedly you will find photos of the Arco de Santa Catelina. This archway dates back to the 1600’s and was constructed so that nuns could cross the street without being seen. From a distance, you can see one of the three volcanoes that surround the city.

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The city’s spiritual center is the baroque church, Iglesia de la Merced, with its yellow facade. I don’t know if that giant rosary is a permanent fixture but it was a sight to see!

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The Iglesia y Convento de la Compañía de Jesús (Church and Convent of the Society of Jesus ) was destroyed by several earthquakes and rebuilt only to be destroyed again. What is interesting about these ruins are the headless saints. Many statues lost their heads after the earthquakes and they could not determine which head went with which statue so they were never replaced.

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Convent of the Capuchins

One of the most beautiful and interesting ruins are that of the Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas (Convent and Church of Our Lady of Zaragoza) which was consecrated in 1736. I spent a relaxing morning exploring the ruins and gardens of the convent.

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After many twists and turns, I found my way to the Edificio Circular (Circular Building), the circular dormitories where the nuns lived.

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The nun’s “cells” were approximately 8′ x 10′ and had the most modest accommodations – an arched doorway, what appears to have been a narrow toilet, one or two niches presumably for religious statuary, and a small window.

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View of the mountains through the window of a nun’s cell.

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Standing inside a cell looking towards the inner courtyard.

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The bathing room was located near the circular dormitories.

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The sótano (basement) was particularly intriguing. A long flight of stairs led down to a barren circular room. The room is dark with only a couple of windows situated beyond reach letting in natural light.

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I heard that the basement was used to punish the nuns by leaving them there for extended periods of time. I don’t know if this is true but it was chilling nonetheless.

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Arts and Crafts

As you might imagine, the city was abundant with arts and crafts. There were large warehouse-like stores filled with pottery, textiles, woodwork and more. There were countless smaller stores with beautiful hand crafted items. Everywhere you walked there were peddlers on the streets carrying armfuls of textiles. My favorite were the colorful tote bags made from upcycled huipils.

With the abundance of textiles, several purveyors displayed the plants from which they made natural dyes such as achiote, cedar, ilamo and wood from the blackberry tree.

In one courtyard, a woman sat at a back strap loom weaving. I watched for a long time as she methodically wove the multi-colored threads on her loom.

A relaxing and fun weekend after a week of interviews and translating.

Field Study in Guatemala City

The capstone assignment for the MBA program was a team-based global business project. For our project, our client was a private equity firm that invests in companies with growth potential primarily in Latin America. Our charge was to develop a country expansion strategy for one of the companies in their portfolio. To accomplish this, we spent a week in Guatemala conducting a field study. We interviewed key stakeholders – the CEO, CFO, clients, partners, third-party administrators, vendors and others in their supply chain. It was an immersive week where we learned a tremendous amount and were able to apply the concepts learned in our MBA courses.

My husband accompanied me on the trip and we arrived in Guatemala City a day early so that we could take in some of the sights before my busy week began. Here are my impressions of Guatemala City.

First, there’s the foliage. The city is lush and green, and the leaves are huge!

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These are the very large leaves of a monstera deliciosa (otherwise known as the swiss cheese plant).

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My husband and I stayed at a lovely boutique hotel called La Inmaculada. The ambience, service and food were wonderful. I took these photos in the inner hotel courtyard where we had most of our meals. The rooms were not as fancy as some of the big-name hotels, but they were clean and had everything we could possibly need.

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Guatemala is renowned for its coffee – and it was delicious. We drank freshly ground coffee in the courtyard every day. Here, a late-night craving for sweets – a warm latte paired with fried plantain covered with cinnamon and a dab of fresh cream.

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We took an excursion to the Mercado de Artesanias La Aurora, a beautiful arts and crafts market next to a rose garden. We practically had the place to ourselves.

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Coffee beans growing in the garden.

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At the market, we were overwhelmed with colors and textures from all the hand-woven textiles and crafts.

 

We bought this little hacky-sack turtle for our puppy. It didn’t last long. I managed to get it away from him before he destroyed it. Now the turtle is missing one leg.

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We brought home several textiles including these cloths to place in a basket with bread or tortillas.

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This queen size textile will serve as a light, cool bedspread during the summer.

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One of my favorite parts of travelling is street food, and Guatemala did not disappoint. There were snow cone vendors all over the main plaza in the historic district. I had one with tamarindo and pineapple – yum!

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The smell of freshly baked bread permeated the air.

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As we walked through the historic district, families outside a church were selling these handmade tamales. I did not resist.

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This gentleman was leading his goats through the downtown area. For a few quetzales, you could have a fresh cup of warm goat’s milk.

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Dinner consisted of a chicken breast covered in an exquisite cream sauce with loroco – a wild vine of edible flowers. Restaurant: Café Kacao. My husband’s meal was smothered with an anacate cream sauce. Anacates, or chanterelle mushrooms, were in season. One night, I had a traditional mole dish.

 

You can’t visit a country in Latin America without visiting churches. The baroque Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint James dominates the city center.

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That particular Sunday was the feast day of Santo Domingo. My husband and I joined the jubilant procession through the streets.

 

 

A few blocks over we passed Rectoria Santa Clara, a Catholic Church in the historic district. Construction of the church was completed in 1734.

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The streets had so much character.

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During the week, while I was busy with the field study, my husband took a side trip to Santiago Atitlán, one of several Mayan villages surrounding beautiful Lake Atitlán. Lake Atitlán is in the Guatemalan Highlands at an elevation of 5,105 feet (1,556 meters). Three volcanoes are situated around the lake.

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(Source)

Part of the reason my husband selected Santiago Atitlán was to visit Cojolya for me. Cojolya is a cooperative of 30 artisans, 25 of whom are women, who weave beautiful and intricate textiles using the traditional back-strap loom. My husband took a photograph of one of the women, descendants of the Mayans, weaving a vibrant textile.

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While the women weave on the back-strap loom, the men weave on large foot looms.

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My husband said he had a great time talking with the weavers. He also enjoyed the serenity of the town by the lake surrounded by mountains. Being the amazing husband that he is, he brought me back these items he personally selected – a gorgeous scarf hand embroidered with local birds, an intricately woven catch-all bag, and an exquisite blue woven scarf. He bought them straight from the women who created them – what a treat!

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I had scheduled this post before I heard the news of the volcano erupting near Guatemala City. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families who lost loved ones.

 

Politics, history, and the arts through murals

Visiting Mexico City means taking in the larger-than-life murals of Diego Rivera. We visited three locations featuring these exquisite frescoes.

The Palacio Nacional (National Palace), which houses the office of the President and other cabinet departments, contains a historical timeline of Mexico as depicted by Rivera. It is difficult to capture the grandeur of these detailed murals of the Mexican civilization. I will share only two murals with you, one showing the indigenous cultures that flourished before the Spanish conquest, and one after.

After the Mexican Revolution Rivera was concerned with two issues, and these determined his artistic themes: the need to offset the contempt with which the conquistadors had viewed the ancient Indian civilizations, and the need to offset the anti-mestizo and anti-Indian attitudes of the European-oriented ruling classes during the porfiriato (the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz).

The role of the arts was to restore understanding of and pride in the heritage and cultures that the concept of Spanish superiority had subverted . . . early indigenistas [like Rivera] tended to glorify the Indian heritage and vilify that of the Spaniards as a means of rectifying a historical imbalance and advancing certain political ideas” (103). (Source: http://bit.ly/2sBTjbn)

Totonac Civilization

Ruins of the structures depicted can be found at El Tajín, Veracruz. At the Museum of Anthropology, we saw the rings and balls used in the ball courts in the upper left corner of the mural.

The Arrival of Cortés

… he depicts in dramatic fashion the violence and exploitation of the Spanish conquerors. Natives hanging in the background, the branding of the native in the foreground, and the reduction of the indians to slaves and pack horses show the cruelty and savagery of the Conquest.

In the center is La Malinche (Doña Marina), a native woman who became Cortés’ mistress and mother of his child Martín. Malinche knew both the (Aztec) Nahuatl language and Maya, thus enabling Hernán Cortés to communicate in both. She became a very valuable interpreter and counselor. The blue-eyed child staring outward at us represents the mixture of the races. (Source: http://bit.ly/2tubi3n)

At the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a magnificent art deco building that hosts visual and performing artists, is the famous mural, “Man, Controller of the Universe.” This is the recreation of the mural that Rivera painted at the Rockefeller Center and which was destroyed in 1934. It is almost impossible to capture the entire mural given its size and frequent visitors, so I show you the panel that caused the controversy.

Man at the Crossroads

Man at the Crossroads … is a whodunit tale that also illustrates the tensions between art and politics.

… the piece would have been stunning had it survived. He had this vision of the importance of technology in the future and the hope that there would be a coming together of workers and industrialists and businessmen to further mankind in general, … It was a very hopeful mural. (Source: Destroyed by Rockefellers, Mural Trespassed On Political Vision, NPR. http://n.pr/1G1R5Rj)


If you are ever in CDMX and want to get unobstructed views of Rivera’s murals, go to the Ministry of Public Education, a few blocks away from the National Palace. We had the entire grounds practically to ourselves. The building has two large courtyards with Rivera’s murals covering several floors in each.

Attempting to sum up his 235 panel cycle, Rivera later writes that his goal was “to reflect the social life of Mexico as I saw it, and through my vision of the truth to show the masses the outline of the future.” (Source: http://mo.ma/2sBNvia)

While all of the frescoes have their own story, these were my favorite. They depict the daily arts of dyeing and weaving.

Los Tintoreros (The Dyers)


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Los Tejedores (The Weavers)

The one mural I have not seen is Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park) located at the Museo Mural Diego Rivera. Therefore, I must return to CDMX one day!

More Mexico City Highlights

Our trip to CDMX (Ciudad de México or Mexico City) was packed with visits to historic archaeological sites, museums, street festivals, and restaurants serving the most delicious food. These photos do not do justice to the sights, sounds, and smells of the city but they will give you a glimpse of the amazing CDMX.

Templo Mayor

The Great Temple was the Mexica sacred space par excellence. The most important rituals were enacted here, including those dedicated to their gods, the naming of their leaders, and the funerals of the nobility. The Mexica architects designed the Great Temple as the center for their model of the universe, where the horizontal plane converged with the vertical plane. (Source: Site placard).

Coatepantli aka
Serpents and Frogs at the Great Temple. Different species of serpents were represented in architecture; their bodies were decorated with symbolic elements, such as feathers, rings, or spirals. Two enormous serpents, each measuring 6 m (20 ft) long and with an undulating body, flank the access to the platform. (Source: Site placard).
Chac mool at Tlaloc Shrine
Tlaloc, the rain god … was responsible for bringing rain, which enabled crops to grow. Outside the entrance, we can see the polychrome sculpture of a chac mool, bearing the attributes of Tlaloc and still retaining its original color. (Source: Site placard).
The House of the Eagles
Bas reliefs of eagle warriors and serpents.

Coyoacán

Frida Kahlo’s blue house is located in the neighborhood of Coyoacán. The word means roughly “place of the coyotes” in náhuatl, an Aztec language still spoken today. The neighborhood is vibrant. Walking along the shady streets, we came across this brightly decorated altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe.

Our destination was La Casa Azul, the home that Frida Kahlo was born and died in. A hand painted sign tells visitors that Frida y Diego vivieron en esta casa 1929-1954 (Frida and Diego lived in this house 1929-1954).

Frida’s studio still has her collection of paint bottles and brushes.

A special exhibit called Los Vestidos de Frida Kahlo (The Dresses of Frida Kahlo) displayed the artist’s clothing, jewelry and footwear. Also on display were the tight corsets she wore as a result of a childhood accident that left her with a lifetime of pain.

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“My painting carries with it the message of pain.” – Frida Kahlo.

The exhibition takes its title from an artwork by Frida Kahlo of the same title – Las Apariencias Engañan (Appearances can be Deceiving) – where Kahlo portrays herself in manner of an X-Ray, revealing her dramatic disabilities concealed beneath the layers. (Source: http://bit.ly/2s0j0lC)

Giant paper mâché figures are located throughout the house and courtyards.

Vogue Mexico has a slide show of many of the items from the exhibit plus selected photos of the Blue House. To learn more about the Blue House, go to the Museo Frida Kahlo site.

Trotsky’s House

Leon Trotsky’s house is a ten minute walk from La Casa Azul. The home is simple and the grounds peaceful although the guard towers and bullet holes in the walls tell another story.

Leon Trotsky House

Trotsky’s desk still has the items he used on a daily basis – his spectacles, papers and ink bottles.

Items on Leon Trostky's desk.

Yarn Sightings

The Mercado de Coyoacán is a typical Mexican market with all kinds of touristy items on sale including pottery, traditional dresses, puppets, t-shirts and the like. The market also carries an abundance of fresh fruit, meats and spices. Walking along all the circuitous aisles I finally spotted yarn. I didn’t buy any but it was nice to see and touch.

Yarn Sighting 1 at Mercado de Coyoacan

Yarn Sighting 2 at Mercado de Coyoacan

City of Teotihuacán

The holy city of Teotihuacan (‘the place where the gods were created’) is situated some 50 km north-east of Mexico City. Built between the 1st and 7th centuries A.D., it is characterized by the vast size of its monuments – in particular, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, laid out on geometric and symbolic principles.

Human occupation of the valley of Teotihuacan began before the Christian era, but it was only between the 1st and the 7th centuries A.D. that the settlement developed into one of the largest ancient cities in the Americas, with at least 25,000 inhabitants.

(Source: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/414).

A full-day excursion took us to the City of Teotihuacán where my son and I climbed to the tops of the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world rising to 75 meters (246 feet) high. The 248 steps to the top are high and narrow. I won’t show you a photo of what I looked like once I got to the top, but trust me, I did it. We also climbed the Pyramid of the Moon which is 43 meters (140 feet) high.

Pyramid of the Sun

Pyramid of the Sun: The pyramid’s base is 222 meters long on each side, and it’s now just over 70 meters high. The pyramid was cobbled together around AD 100 from three million tonnes of stone, without the use of metal tools, pack animals or the wheel. (Source: http://bit.ly/2r8Zr9p).

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

The structure known as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl or the “Plumed serpent,” was built between 150 and 200 a.d. It consists of seven stepped bodies, with “slope and panel” designed walls on all four sides, decorated with plumed serpents, carved in stone, which move among seashells. (Source: Site placard).

Temple of the Feathered Serpent - Wall

Temple of the Feathered Serpent - Close up

As we walked down one of the pyramids, we saw these stones jutting out of the slanted wall. There wasn’t a sign telling us what they were but we surmised they are there to break someone’s fall should they have the misfortune of tumbling down the pyramid.

Side of a pyramid.

El Bazaar Sábado

Early Saturday morning, we made our way to the neighborhood of San Ángel for the Bazaar Sábado. We walked along cobble-stoned streets into beautiful colonial buildings and around the periphery of San Jacinto Square overflowing with artists. Artisans in many crafts gather every Saturday morning featuring artwork in leather, glass, pottery, jewelry, and textiles. The Androna textiles were magnificent in their multi-colored hues.

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Textile techniques and designs are a living heritage passed from mothers to daughters throughout generations in regions like Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Guerrero, Hidalgo and Yucatán. With materials such as cotton, silk, wool and linen, Androna Linartas curates traditional textiles made with different techniques like back strap loom, foot loom, embroidery and hook among others. Her goal is to preserve the essential Mexican textile culture. (Source: http://bit.ly/2suKWAI).

Androna Textiles 3

This is already a long post so I will stop here. Luckily, the flight to CDMX is only two and a half hours from Houston. I see another trip on the horizon. Hasta la próxima.