Zapotec Designs - Why they Matter

We were recently able to sit down with MZ artisan Maria Luisa at her home in Tlacochahuaya, a Zapotec village only a few miles away from Teotitlan. María Luisa, along with her husband Jose Luis, has been working with MZ from the very beginning. As we sat on her open patio looking over the Oaxacan countryside, we got to chat about the significance of the woven designs in her life, and in Zapotec culture in general.

Q: Can you explain the meaning behind the Zapotec designs and their significance in the culture?

ML: The majority of the Zapotec symbols are from the Zapotec ruins like the ones in Mitla, the ruins built into the church in Teotitlan, and in Monte Alban. Most tapetes (the tradition woven rug) have the same Zapotec symbols as found in those ruins, such as diamonds, arrows, agaves, butterflies etc.

Each design has a different meaning, for example, the border along many of the tapetes have the Mitla greca design of interlocking spirals, each spiral representing life and death. They are always connected. The diamond design symbolizes the eye of God. The arrows are representative of the corn flower; corn being extremely important to our people and thus the arrow is a very common design found in the tapetes. There are also symbols that represent butterflies, mountains and rain.

The symbols are the same across different Zapotec communities, and they are even similar to ancient Incan and Mayan symbols. This is because most indigenous cultures share a deep connection to nature, the trees, the birds, the mountains.

Q: Can you speak about how your family teaches the Zapotec designs to younger generations?

ML: When a child is just beginning to weave, the first thing that they learn is the ‘rain’ border. They start to learn how to work the loom with a simple design, and after they gain more experience with weaving, the designs become more complex. The spiral design we call a Mitla greca is difficult to weave but it’s one of the most important designs because it symbolizes the life cycle.  

Q: Do you have any memories about weaving when you were younger?

ML: Yes I have many memories. When we were little, our toys were spools of yarn, so even as babies we played with yarn, and started to identify the colors. My mom was always dying the wool and my dad always weaved. When I got big enough, I was able to press on the pedals and little by little I began to love and appreciate the process of weaving more. Our family was very close because as a weaver, out father was able to work from home. He was able to take breaks to play with all of us, and we were always together as a family. Weaving is work that unites a family because every person has a job and can work as a team.

Q: Can you identify which family made an item by its design?

ML: Yes, for example, our family always does the same design - the Mitla border, with the diamond and an arrow. We always weave the corn flower, the Mitla greca symbol, and the eye of god. Other families may weave similar designs, but there are differences in they way they are combined. The majority of weavers have not learned to combine colors like we combine colors in our family, and this makes our work distinctive.  

Q: Can you explain the significance of being able to share your Zapotec culture with people around the world?

ML: Sharing our Zapotec culture is really important and beautiful. Before, people didn’t value it as much. Now, people know that every piece of weaving holds the history of the village, the story of a family and their customs. We are so excited to see people use our bags outside of Mexico. My bags get to travel around the whole world! I get so excited to know I made something that people love and cherish. Since the symbols and designs are distinct, people all over the world can recognize that they are from Oaxaca, and that makes me very proud.

For us at MZ, we recognize the significant role that weaving plays in maintaining and celebrating the incredible Zapotec artisanal lineage. We believe it is essential that Zapotec communities are able to pass down the meaning behind the traditional Zapotec symbols and with it, their connections to their ancestors and the natural world.

It is our goal, through sharing Zapotec textiles with a wider market, to help make weaving a viable livelihood for the artisans, allowing them to continue to do this important work. And we couldn’t do this without conscious shoppers, who value handmade products and indigenous artisanal traditions. Thanks for being part of the MZ family!

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