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February 24, 2017

Porfirio Gutiérrez sees young Zapotec weavers embracing their traditions

The Artist Leadership Program (ALP) of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was created to rebuild cultural self-confidence, challenge personal boundaries, and foster cultural continuity while reflecting artistic diversity. The program's goals have included recognizing and promoting indigenous artistic leadership. At the same time, the program has sought to enhance the artistic growth, development, and leadership of emerging student artists and scholars through workshops in the artists' communities. Here, weaver Porfirio Gutiérrez shares the impact of his experience.

Before he left Washington, D.C., Porfirio Gutiérrez gave this brief, informal talk on his research in the museum's collections and his plans for the community workshop he describes here.

My name is Porfirio Gutiérrez and I am a Zapotec weaver from Teotitlán del Valle located near Oaxaca, Mexico. I took part in the Artist Leadership Program in Washington during December 2015. My project upon returning to Teotitlán del Valle was to revive traditional Zapotec dyeing in the community.

Teotitlán del Valle is a very old Zapotec town, known for more than a thousand years for its fine weaving. The majority of the people are still involved in weaving in some way, but mine is one of only a few families who still have the knowledge of working with fine handspun yarn and with dyes made from plants, minerals, and insects. 

The greatest challenge in organizing a community workshop for young weavers was that we didn’t have enough space available for everyone who wanted to take part. Young people asked me to put them on a waiting list, just in case someone didn’t show up. 

The students were very excited to learn about their ancient natural dyes and the sources and techniques for making and using them. The community was also very impressed and proud to have the Smithsonian supporting this project. The villagers now know that there is someone raising awareness about the modern challenges we are facing, and this gives them hope! That is especially true for the families holding on to our ancient traditions.

I deeply appreciate the institution for giving me and my community this opportunity. It changed my life! As artist I gained knowledge and confidence; working with the Smithsonian brought validation to my work. The research I did at the museum and the things I learned in the program reassured me and gave me freedom to express myself. 

Most importantly, this experience is rekindling pride in Zapotec artisanship and craftsmanship, and in the community overall. One weaver who took part in the workshop said that she was very appreciative to me and to my family because we didn't keep this knowledge to ourselves and instead we were sharing it with our community.

I poured my heart out in the workshop, because the young people who took part will carry on with this tradition. Tomorrow they will open their hearts to the next generation, so that our culture is not lost.

—Porfirio Gutiérrez (Zapotec)

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