san pedro amuzgosThe town hall at San Pedro Amuzgos, a town famous for its huipiles.

San Pedro Amuzgos: People of the yarn

San Pedro Amuzgos, about a three-hour drive from Puerto Escondido, is the capital of the Amuzgos in the state of Oaxaca. The Amuzgos are thought by many to have been the original settlers of the coastal region of Oaxaca and Guerrero.

They are an interesting people. Although few in number and subjugated first by the Mixtecs, then by the Aztecs, they have managed to maintain and strengthen their ancient traditions, culture and language.

This is most likely due to the fact that they were so highly respected for their skills and abilities. The Amuzgos call themselves tsan-núa, “People of the Yarn”. Amuzgo comes from amoxcho (from the Náhuatl amoxtli or book, so Amuzgo means “place of books”. They were known for the knowledge of medicinal plants and they are still rightly famous for their skills in the textile arts.

One of the most important activities is creating the beautiful embroidered dresses, or huipiles, that most women and adolescents proudly wear every day of the week. (Some 90 per cent of the population of San Pedro Amuzgos is Amuzgo.) Women are involved in making the cloth, weaving the cotton on backstrap looms, dyeing and embroidering; some even grow and spin the raw cotton.

The Amuzgo huipil is made from 100 per cent cotton and adorned with figures that represent the cosmological symbols of their ancestors. The geometric patterns in the horizontal stripes represent heaven or the Eye of God; the zig-zag patterns represent the Plumed Serpent, the symbol of wisdom and piety. Other motifs include roses, crabs, scorpions and other creatures.

During fiesta days there are special masses, processions with a profusion of flowers and incense and traditional dances, especially important to the Amuzgos, a solemn and sacred ritual to give thanks to the creator.

The first day of the fiesta the dancers who have kept vigil and been fasting in the church emerge accompanied by the women resplendent in their finest huipiles and carrying branches of manzanilla, geranium, other flowers of the season and pots of burning incense. Led by the brass band and enveloped in smoke, the procession passes through the entire town and eventually comprises most of its population, including screaming children and staggering drunks.

They make their way to the home of the mayordomo, the man honored to be chosen as fiesta sponsor. A tarp and benches have been set up in the yard and as the dancers dance and musicians play, beer and mezcal is handed out.

San Pedro Amuzgos is a pleasant drive from Puerto Escondido, especially once you leave Pinotepa Nacional and climb into the mountains, passing small clusters of homes overlooking valleys of plowed fields. There are splendid views, the landscape lushly green and bursting with color. When the town isn’t in fiesta, the visitor will see women weaving in front of their homes. The huipiles from here are the among the most prized in Oaxaca and have brought fame to its weavers far beyond Mexico’s borders.

There are several stores in town selling shawls, huipiles and other articles. San Pedro Amuzgos is a kind of clearing house for textiles from the area. The shawls, rebozos, are of natural, unbleached cotton with embroidery and openwork across the length.

In safeguarding their ancient traditions, the Amuzgo have cooperative groups of weavers, embroiderers, even spinners and growers of cotton. This way the traditional techniques are passed down through the generations.

—Warren Sharpe