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The Times Shopper: Oaxaca

Mexico Crafts Capital Boasts Army of Artisans

December 27, 1987|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer .

One of the greatest joys of traveling through Mexico is the discovery and purchase of local handicrafts. The artisans throughout this richly varied land produce an extraordinary range of handmade art objects and wearables. In fact, each region of Mexico has its own unique selection of crafts, including textiles, wood and lacquer work, metal work, leather tooling and pottery.

Retail outlets, operated either by the government or privately, have collected many lovely things from throughout Mexico. They offer a wide variety of items for sale in Mexico City, Guadalajara and other large cities, and in popular beach resorts such as Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.

But the real fun of buying souvenirs is to track these crafts to their source, where you can usually find the most unusual items and a much broader range of things.

In addition, getting to know the surroundings in which artisans work, learning something about the history of their craft, and perhaps meeting the artisans, enhances forever your appreciation of the things you buy.

Rich in Crafts

Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-ha-ka), located about 340 miles southeast of Mexico City and easily reached by daily flights on Mexicana or Aeromexico airlines, is extraordinarily rich in its traditional crafts, including the region's famous green and black pottery, brightly colored baskets and straw carryalls, knives and daggers, and especially textiles--hand-loomed rugs and embroidered clothing.

The area surrounding this picturesque city was long ago inhabited by the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians, known for building magnificent temples and extraordinary handicrafts.

Today, Oaxaca's population is still primarily Indian, and the descendants of these ancient civilizations have maintained their traditional life style. The city is old-fashioned, a bit sleepy and dusty, without high-rise buildings and heavy traffic jams.

Weavers and embroiderers are seen everywhere. In fact, locals say that "Oaxacaquenas" are born with needles in their hands.

In the town's squares, and especially in the small parque near Hotel El Presidente Ex-Convento de Santa Catalina (a restored convent dating from 1576, located at Cinco de Mayo 300), the women sit at small looms and rhythmically send their shuttles back and forth to weave beautiful poncho-like garments.

Intricate Patterns

The garments are intricately patterned with exotic and beautifully plumed birds and fanciful flowers, and are geometrically designed in bright reds, blues, yellows, greens and a unique magenta dye that is made in the traditional way (from dried and crushed female mites that feed on cactus) by descendants of the Zapotec Indians in the nearby town of Culiapan. The vibrant designs are set against a field of white in a loosely woven and slightly patterned fabric that is both beautiful and allows the air to circulate.

Other women--teen-age girls and very young ninas --sit under shade trees and work with sturdy embroidery needles, threaded with cotton or silk yards and dyed every color of the rainbow.

Their hands are rarely still, as they rapidly spear white or vibrantly colored lightweight cotton fabrics with the tiny stitches that quickly produce entire universes of minute flowers, birds and vines to adorn lovely long dresses (commonly called Mexican wedding dresses) and very pretty, puff-sleeved blouses.

Others chat as they crochet lacy-looking blouses of silk or cotton threads, or weave woolen rugs, creating symmetrical geometric patterns, slightly abstract and mask-like faces, or bird and flower designs in earthy brown and gray shades with splashes of vibrant colors.

Men supervise the selling of finished rugs, which are often displayed on ropes that are strung up between tree trunks.

Good Overview

You can get a good overview of these garments, rugs and other local wares at Juarez Market, one of the truly great Mexican traditional mercados , with hundreds of stalls overflowing with colorful, handmade items.

The market is located one block off the zocalo or main square. Textiles and clothes are found inside, once you get beyond the sensationally colorful and aromatic displays of fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs, other local food stuffs and wares.

Prices at Juarez Market are astonishingly inexpensive. In fact, they depend largely on your bargaining skills. Never accept the first price mentioned. Make your first counteroffer about a third or half off. And shop around before making a purchase. Many of the stalls have similar merchandise, but prices will vary by as much as $10 or more on an item.

Mexican wedding dresses that sell in the United States for $50 to $100 can be purchased for $25 or less. If you buy several, the price can be as low as $18 each.

Similarly embroidered blouses sell for about $15 to $20. Quality on these garments varies considerably, so always check carefully to see that seams are straight, embroidery is even and tight, and colors are consistent.

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