OAXACA, Mexico – Weavers in an indigenous community in the southeastern Mexican state of Oaxaca are working during the COVID-19 pandemic to turn out masks using the colorful cloth they normally use to adorn their regular output of blouses and “huipiles,” the traditional blouse or tunic worn by indigenous women from central Mexico to Central America.
Mexican authorities have prohibited non-essential economic activities during the coronavirus quarantine, and so the Zapotec Indian community in the town of San Pablo Villa de Mitla decided to make essential items to help deal with the crisis.
“There are practically no sales (of our usual products) and now what we’re doing is working with facemasks, but since it’s something different we’ve had to adapt to it,” Javier Garcia Ruiz, the owner of the La Casa del Artesano workshop in the community of Xaaga de Mitla, 45 kilometers (28 miles) southeast of the city of Oaxaca, told EFE on Sunday.
Using ancestral techniques, the manufacturing of blouses, huipiles, shawls, napkins and an endless supply of other garments and items all came to halt on March 23 when the federal government decreed the health emergency over the coronavirus, which has infected 33,460 people and killed 3,353 so far in Mexico.
The looms were silent during the Holy Week vacations, affecting about 1,000 families that make their livelihoods from weaving, Javier said.
So, a couple of weeks ago, they decided to adapt to the pandemic and sew or weave facemasks using the same cloth, yarn and colors that Oaxacan women prefer for their garments, which are admired by the tourists who used to visit Oaxaca.
Thus, the weavers of Mitla have adapted their output to items that are vitally needed by the health community and the public at large.
Meanwhile, the government of Oaxaca, where there have been more than 200 confirmed coronavirus cases and almost 40 deaths, has ordered that all people must wear facemasks when they go out in public.
The masks are adorned with fretwork or bordering, flowers, birds and mountains and are all fitted with a protective filter through which the user breathes.
Jazmin Cervantes Guerrero, the manager of the Casa del Artesano, told EFE that the workshop is facing its biggest challenge: surviving amid the pandemic and the severe economic downturn that has resulted.
“If you open your facemasks, inside there’s a filter, … with SMS cloth which is used to make industrial facemasks,” she said of the new product.
Weaver Marbella Olivera said that the facemasks are environmentally friendly, washable and reusable.
“It’s not like the throw-away facemasks that, aside from creating trash also can be a focus of infection because many people burn them, but there are people who just use them and throw them away … so this one can be washed and you can keep using it,” she said.
Thus, the ancient cloths and fabrics used by the Mixtec and Zapotec communities have evolved into something essential for reducing the risks of infection during the deadly pandemic, which authorities say is approaching its peak in Mexico at this time.
In addition to helping the health professionals and members of the public, making the masks also helps the local community survive amid the economic crisis.
“You can make a facemask out of regular cloth, but you can also make one … with cloth from a loom that can benefit … the artisans directly,” Javier said.
Esau Ruiz Diaz is a young artisan working for 17 years at Xaaga and said that, if nobody had thought of this idea of making facemasks, they would all now be facing the same fate as other weavers who have not been able to come to grips with the pandemic.
“There are many people who are in this profession and unfortunately many of them have closed their workshops because of the way they make and sell their (output). It’s gotten complicated,” he said.
The future of the artisans in the region is uncertain due to the possible cancellation of the Guelaguetza, Oaxaca’s most important festival, which is held between June and July with lots of folkloric dances and everyone wearing traditional outfits.
The Mexican government prohibited non-essential economic activities during April and May, although it has not specified sanctions for companies that fail to comply, and it urged the public to remain at home during this time, even though the quarantine is not mandatory so that it will not affect the millions of people in Mexico who live hand to mouth within the informal economy.
The authorities, however, predict a gradual reopening of the economy starting in June.