Off the beaten track and yet conveniently located next to a highway, the town of Santo Tomás Jalieza is called the “Pueblo de los Cinturones” (lit. Belt town) because it is best known for its traditional weaving using backstrap looms to make garments such as rebozos, huipils, jackets, napkins, tablecloths bags and more.
The name Jalieza is from the Zapotec language and means “under the church” likely refering to the parish of the Apostle Thomas that dominates the center of town. The town’s origin is unknown, but it was considered second in importance in the Central Valley region of Oaxaca when the city of Monte Alban was at its height.
Today it is one of many towns and villages in the warn and dry valley that extends south from the city of Oaxaca, many of which specialize in one or more handcrafts.
It is a very rural town with agriculture still the main economic activity, raising basic staples such as corn, wheat, fruit and cattle. There is also some production of the strong liquor, mezcal. Spanish is dominant, Zapotec is still spoken, especially in homes. Like many other communities, weaving was a domestic occupation, primarily for auto-consumption, later with some sales outside the home. In the 20th century, tourism became a very important industry for this region, and today most crafts are produced for the tourist market.
While Jalieza does weave with other fibers such as wool and acrylics, it is best known for its work in cotton, an important fiber since the pre Hispanic period. The continued use of the backstrap loom is testament to the ancient roots of this tradition. The basis of the tradition was the making of traditional garb, which is based on a blouse, a skirt and a wrap-around belt/girdle. Colors and patterns of traditional women’s dress in the Central Valleys tend to indicate where the wearer is from. For example, women from Jalieza wear red woven belts. They are also noted for the making and wearing of wool skirts for special occasions. The making of these garments, in their numerous variations are also made for others in the Central Valleys, with some sent as far as Guatemala. However, the wearing of local indigenous dress has all but died out, only occasionally visible during certain festivals.
Most of the items for sale are a mix of traditional and modern influences.Very elaborate pieces may show images such as those doing the dance of the feathers, but most have geometric and/or simple animal designs. One effort the local government takes is to promote the local textile production. There is a permanent handcrafts market on the main plaza of the town, surrounded by a number of stores which are also dedicated to sales of the same. In this market, especially on weekends when it is fullest, women can be seen working on new pieces on their looms while they simultaneously call out to potential customers.
Unfortunately, sales to these tourists have been very poor, especially from 2006 to the present, because of various teachers’ strikes, which have gained the region a reputation for violence. While all sectors of the Oaxacan economy have suffered, artisans such as these, who live far from any incidents that have happened, can hardly afford the loss in sales. One very simple and direct way to support artisans such as these is to visit these towns and buy directly from them. Jalieza and other towns lie on one of several tour routes and are worth the trip, especially in combination.
Still artisans have not given up and still manage to get goods to markets, relying on middle men and major tourist events such as the annual Guelaguetza festival in July.