Oaxacan dresses, c. 1930 Traditional Oaxacan garments are sought-after collectors items throughout Mexico and the United States because of their beauty and importance as an art form.
Heirlooms Are Forever
by Gabriel Cerda Vidal
John Kelly arrived in Mexico in 1875 as part of a group of North
Americans sent to research mining and investment possibilities for a
large U.S. corporation in the state of Oaxaca. The discoveries were
favorable for all parties involved-- the Gold Steel Corporation found
important mineral deposits throughout the state; and John Kelly,
after one romantic evening of long walks, cocktails and seduction, a
hasty marriage. After the exploratory investigations were completed
the miners returned to the United States-- except John Kelly.
Miguel Alfredo Kelly Martinez was John Kelly's grandson. From him,
Miguel Alfredo inherited his grandfather's fascination for metals.
From his father, he inherited a large antique shop which was entering
into its third generation in business. The store was the most
important of its type in Oaxaca, where one could find every item
imaginable. Between profuse groupings of furniture, frames, chairs,
chandeliers, paintings, sculptures, parchments and chests, were two
items in particular which captured the attention of sense-shocked
visitors. Neither item was for sale. One was a metal suit of armor
which dated back to the time of the Spanish conquest. Miguel
Alfredo's grandfather, John, had acquired from a Dominican convent in
Oaxaca. The other piece was a framed, handwoven dress which was
displayed in the center of the shop. The armor wasn't for sale
because it was priceless.
One afternoon, Miguel Alfredo stepped out to buy an old harp he had
been hoping to purchase for some time. The owner had finally decided
to accept his offer. Miguel Alfredo left the shop in the hands of a
girl he had recently hired. Upon returning to the store, he was
horrified to learn that the sales girl had sold the beautiful dress
while he had been out. Slapping his forehead in disbelief, he
demanded that the bewildered girl tell him which way the buyer had
gone. Without uttering another word, he ran out the door towards the
direction she had indicated.
John Kelly's only child was Alfredo Kelly. Named by his mother
Guadalupe, in memory of her father, Alfredo's passion since childhood
followed that of his father's-- metals.. As he grew older, Alfredo
began helping his father in the antique shop. He was fascinated by
the different woods, types of pottery, coins, metals and other items
in the store, and quickly learned about the origins and backgrounds
of the different pieces. Alfredo soon had the abilities of a
competent antiquarian, as well as experience in handling the
administrative aspects of the business. The only area he lacked
knowledge in was handwoven clothing and textiles. One of the only
areas he lacked any knowledge in was hand woven clothing and
textiles. This was mainly due to the fact that there were few such
pieces in the shop. In fact, the only piece in the entire store was
an old handwoven dress which was stored beneath a showcase, wrapped
in colored tissue paper with a hand-written story attached to it.
Alfredo had never even bothered to read the note. After Guadalupe's
death, three days before that of her husband John's, the dress ended
up in the back room of the shop.
One scorching day in July, a month after the funerals, Alfredo was
startled by the ring of the doorbell. The had been engrossed in
restocking a showcase, and his memories. Discreetly wiping away a
single tear, the turned to attend the client.
The man had an odd-looking appearance, a wide-brim felt hat partly
covered his face. It was the face of a wanderer-- tranquil looking
though somewhat detached. Before speaking to him, Alfredo allow the
gentleman to browse among the shop's many objects. After a few
minutes, the visitor moved towards the showcase where Alfredo had
been working. Following a hospitable greeting, he said:
--I'm looking for different articles of clothing that exemplify
popular art from this area.
--I don't sell that type of merchandise here. You should try a
clothing store-- remarked Alfredo.
--I'm guess I'm confused. I was positive that I'd find what I was
looking for here. I'm searching for weavings and textiles, articles
of clothing that are typical to every day use in these parts. Look, I
am actually traveling the entire country, gathering information on
Mexican popular arts. In this case, Oaxacan textiles.
--Unfortunately, I can't help you. The field has never interested me,
and my knowledge on the subject is limited. My mother loved old
dresses, and my father always wore traditional Oaxacan clothing.
--If you have a little time, I can explain some of the history to you.
--Look, textiles and weavings are among the products most typical to
our national industry. They are most commonly found as different
types of clothing, like sarapes , rebozos and tilmas-- which are all
items used to cover oneself. Or like the huipiles, camisas and
chincuetes which are worn on a daily basis. There are ceñidores , as
well as many other articles which are used mostly for adornment.
Now, this is not a complete list-- in fact you could say it is even a
little arbitrary. Nevertheless, it is the quality of the weave that
is most important. Allow me to go into a bit more detail.
Sarapes and rebozos, which are what interest me the most, are
probably the most important and typical types of textiles in Mexico.
The sarape, a rectangular article of clothing similar to a blanket or
shawl, is worn by the men of indigenous communities. They are rather
generic in shape, with a hole in the center for a man to slip his
head through. Usually woven of wool or cotton, the flaps hang down to
cover the front and back of the body. During the day men use their
sarapes as a type of cloak to wrap themselves in, and as a blanket to
cover themselves with during the cool evenings. The sarape is also
used as a cloth to spread fruits or other wares for sale on at the
local market, to cover the body of a fallen man after a lethal gun
fight, or to provide make-shift shade from the sun at a village fair.
Sarapes are made in nearly all the cooler regions of Mexico, and in a
few warmers climates as well, such as Guadalajara. Each region
produces distinctive styles, but the general characteristics are
similar through-out the country. At times one will accidentally find
very unique and unusual examples, but to truly admire the typical
sarape one should look in places like Santana Chautempan or here, in
Oaxaca where this traditional art is produced by the most skilled
weavers in Mexico.
Quality weaves, interesting motifs and production quantity are the
highest in the nation in these areas, especially in Oaxaca, where
sarapes are often produced on antique looms. Many of these looms were
imported from Spain during the colonial period, having since been
modified through generations of use and repair. The motifs produced
by these master artisans have an indigenous feel to them that is
particular to the region. Sarapes are typically woven from a high
grade of wool, which is soft to the touch. Some are white with blue,
grey or black fringe similar to the colors in religious robes and
cloths. Others have vividly colorful geometric patterns akin to Aztec
motifs. These are often made of a more coarse wool than sarapes
mentioned before. Then there is the style commonly referred to
as "jorongo," which has the design of an animal polychromed over a
background of greys and browns, giving it a ceremonial feeling... All
of these articles reveal a wonderful sense of design and balance. The
finished result of the artist's careful, methodical work leaves no
doubt as to his skill.
Oaxacan sarapes are sought after throughout Mexico and the United
States. Their beauty and importance as an art form was in fact first
realized by American tourists, who are disposed to paying more for
--So, for the weavers, this product represents a very lucrative
--Unfortunately, that is not the case. While a fair amount of
textiles are still being produced to this day, the business is in
decline as a whole. There are fewer factories, and most weavers live
poor lives-- not only for the small amount they earn for their
labors, but also due to sever respiratory problems. The weavers
generally work in rooms with poor ventilation. Dust produced from the
wools is absorbed into the artisans lungs, and within two to three
years causes tuberculosis. Workers who being their careers as being
healthy and robust often end as victims of tisis.
--But surely these are only sporadic incidents --asked Alfredo.
--No. Of the various artists in this field over the age of thirty, I
have not found one who wasn't a victim of tuberculosis, the man
replied, shaking his head sadly. --In effect, it is a sacrifice.
--I imagine sarapes are expensive.
--Well, the prices vary, depending on where one buys it. For example,
if a pure wool sarape is worth between seven and eight pesos from the
artisan who made it, it would sell for nine to ten in the town store.
In the train station of that same town it would bring twelve to
fifteen pesos, and in Mexico City or Toluca the price would be
sixteen or seventeen pesos.
The same type of sarape, but made from a lower grade, twisted wool or
wool blend would sell for 30% less than those prices, and 40% lower
for those made from coarse scrap wool.
--That is very interesting, but you haven't mentioned anything about
other articles-- like the rebozo for example.
--The rebozo is a feminine article of clothing. It is used to shade
her head from the sun, or worn as a shawl crossed over her breast, as
a type of backpack to carry her baby in, as a handkerchief to dry her
tears with, as a basket for carrying things or as a blanket for the
indigenous lady to sit upon..
The rebozo originated in Spain, but was soon adopted as an article of
typical national dress. Its use was transformed to meet the needs of
daily village life. This textile is similar to a shawl, much longer
than it is wide. The most common color is a blue-grey or blue-black
and adorned with soft-toned speckled patterns or motifs, similar to
the plumage of a ring-dove. In Oaxaca the preferred pattern is wide
blue and white strips.
--What about the tilmas.
--Tilmas are made from rigid cotton. Worn by men, they are triangular
in shape with an opening for the head. The cut is short, most common
pattern is with red and white strips.
--Tell me a little about ceñidores.
--Their origin is primitive. The indigenous weaver would tie one end
of the threads to a tree or base. Sitting in the floor, he would
twist the coarse fibers one over the other, forming a type of belt or
--You also mentioned huipiles, tell me about them.
--Huipiles are articles of clothing which are 100% indigenous. Worn
by women, they are made from an elongated cotton square with a hole
in the center for the head. These open-sided blouses are heavily
embroidered with black, red or wine colored designs.
--Tell me more, please.
--Right now that's impossible. I'm returning to Mexico City today, my
train leaves in a little while. It has been a pleasure meeting you,
so long. I hope you'll reconsider your decision and include some of
these articles in your shop --he said as he turned to walk away.
Before the man reached the door, Alfredo asked him his name. The
conversation had been so interesting that he had forgotten to do so
earlier. The man turned when he heard the question, and touching the
brim of his hat, he answered: My name is Jóse Francisco Gerardo
Murillo Coronado, at your service. But, if we ever meet again, just
call me Dr. Atl. He left and never returned again.
Alfredo, feeling nostalgic and curious, remembered the old dress that
was wrapped in tissue paper lying in the back room of the store.
Picking it up, he brushed away the dust and read the note: "Guadalupe
wore this dress the night I first met her, the night I fell in love
with her. Surely it must hold the fortunate culpability."
When Miguel Alfredo Kelly Martínez, John's grandson, inherited the
store from his father, Alfredo, the dress was already in its frame
hanging in the center of the shop. Miguel Alfredo had heard the story
from his father many times.
Running three block to catch the pair of tourists who had purchased
the dress, Alfredo paid them three time the amount it had cost them
to buy it from his shop.
Note: The technical references in this article are from the
publication: Gerardo Murillo, Las Artes Populares en México, Vol. 2,
México, Libreria Cultura, 1921.
NOTE: Gerardo Muillo (Guadalajara, Mexico: 1875-1964), also commonly
known as "Dr. Atl," was a prominent painter and promoter of Mexican
art and culture during the first half of the twentieth century. He is
best known for his oil paintings and research on volcanoes, in
particular the famous Paricutín volcano in Michoacan (see El
antiQuario No. 1, Vol. 1).