Finding the Gift of Colour in Oaxaca

Celebrating the hues of Mexico’s most vibrant state.  
During a festival in Ciudad Ixtepec traditional gowns embroidered with silk flowers dazzle as brightly as a shower of fireworks. Photo by Diego Huerta.
During a festival in Ciudad Ixtepec traditional gowns embroidered with silk flowers dazzle as brightly as a shower of fireworks. Photo by Diego Huerta.

“Go ahead, hermano. Milk the snail.”

Since late morning I’ve been chasing 76-year-old traditional dyer Habacuc Avendaño and his son as they braved the rocky coastline of Isla San Agustín in Oaxaca, Mexico. For hours Habacuc scaled down slippery boulders into the frothing surf to pluck a single tixinda snail hidden among hundreds of urchins, limpets, and other marine molluscs. As soon as he pulled a snail from its hiding place, the shell filled with a defensive exudate. Careful not to spill the contents, Habacuc gently poured the cream-coloured liquid over a skein of cotton draped on his shoulder. This was the dyeing technique his family had employed for hundreds of years. After hours of trailing him through the unrelenting Oaxacan sun, I caught up with him as he stood in front of a split in the rock. Instead of reaching in for the next precious shell, Habacuc stepped aside and nodded to me. It was my turn.

***

I am obsessed with the colour purple, which I wear on an almost daily basis. I have purple rooms in my home and a lavender-painted car in the garage. My favourite musical artist, Prince, set me on my purple path at an early age. For me the colour evokes bacchanalian rhythms and cosmic sensuality but also antiquity and royalty. Purple stained the sails of Cleopatra’s ship and the togas of Roman emperors.

The baroque splendour of Oaxaca City’s Templo de Santo Domingo commands the view from Hotel Los Amantes (top). Photo by Adam Wiseman; More than a millennium before the Spaniards arrived, Monte Albán—a 30-minute drive from Oaxaca City—was a flourishing Zapotec centre of open-air markets and precisely aligned temples (bottom). Photo by Atlantide Phototravel.

The baroque splendour of Oaxaca City’s Templo de Santo Domingo commands the view from Hotel Los Amantes (top). Photo by Adam Wiseman; More than a millennium before the Spaniards arrived, Monte Albán—a 30-minute drive from Oaxaca City—was a flourishing Zapotec centre of open-air markets and precisely aligned temples (bottom). Photo by Atlantide Phototravel.

The traditional way of tinting textiles purple involved marine snails. But was anyone on the planet still dyeing fabric like this? If so, how did the process actually work? Heartsick over Prince’s death in 2016, I decided it was time to connect my recent interest in indigenous textiles with my nearly lifelong passion for purple.

In pursuit, I head south. The Mexican state of Oaxaca is a bastion of ancient colour, a land where naturally dyed textiles still dazzle with kaleidoscopic opulence. Here pre-Columbian dyeing techniques remain in practice but are increasingly rare.

Near Oaxaca City, in Teotitlán del Valle, Fidel Cruz Lazo and his family are renowned for their beautiful, handmade Zapotec wool rugs, known as tapetes. Their rugs differ from most others in the area, as all of their wool is dyed using natural means. Although the actual recipes have been lost to history, self-taught Cruz Lazo has done his best to reverse-engineer the way he believes his ancestors coloured their textiles using fruits, minerals, clays, vegetables, flowers, and insects. At Casa Cruz the family conducts demonstrations on how to make its fabric dyes. “We are not worried about people stealing Fidel’s recipes, so we have no secrets,” his wife, María Luisa Mendoza, says. “Dyeing yarn this way is too much work to be lucrative. We do it because we love it and to keep the old traditions alive.”

Historically, the most famous pigment to come out of Mexico is red, which is made from a small parasitic insect known as the cochineal. Cruz Lazo’s son shows me how to harvest the insects off cactus paddles, where they ingest the plant’s flesh and convert it into carminic acid. Once dried, their bodies are ground up and mixed with water and ammonia or sodium carbonate to render a blood-red dye bath. Some historians consider this red the greatest treasure, after gold and silver, that the Spanish plundered from the New World.

Next we pick pericón flowers (a tarragon substitute), which, legend holds, were used in powdered form by the Aztec to relax their sacrificial victims. The Cruz family now uses pericón to make a brilliant yellow dye. We crush local indigo plants to make blue, and walnut shells to yield a rich, chocolate brown. Seeing the amount of work that goes into dyeing each spool of hand-spun wool makes me appreciate how much we take colour for granted. I look anew at the clothing everyone is wearing, realising what it would take to create those tints naturally.

Near Pinotepa Nacional these Mixtec women have added a white huipil to their striped pozahuanco wrap, traditionally worn on its own. Photo by Diego Huerta; Natural sources richly tint strands of yarn. Photo by Adam Wiseman.

Near Pinotepa Nacional these Mixtec women have added a white huipil to their striped pozahuanco wrap, traditionally worn on its own. Photo by Diego Huerta; Natural sources richly tint strands of yarn. Photo by Adam Wiseman.

The day ends with a homemade spread of quesillo cheese, chapulines (grasshoppers), and pork tamales wrapped in corn husks. After supper we toast with shots of red mescal coloured with ground cochineal. I ask Cruz Lazo if he has ever worked with the snails to make a purple dye.

“That is a very special purple,” he says. “There are only a few people alive still doing it. The men go out in the ocean and dye cotton using one snail at a time. They cannot transport it, as they do not want to kill the snails. You have to go to the coast to find that.”

***

I stop in Oaxaca City to get my bearings. The Central de Abastos market lures me in with the smell of grilled meat and smoked chilli peppers. I am immediately floored by an eight-year-old culinary prodigy who’s overseeing a toasted-grasshopper stand. She offers me samples from her overflowing baskets of differently seasoned and sized chapulines while eloquently pontificating on their subtle nuances. With a fistful of crunchy insects, I sit down at a stall for goat soup. My steaming bowl arrives with an island of chopped onions, cilantro, and lime wedges slowly sinking into the fragrant broth. I drink beer and a large mug of foamy hot chocolate made from local cocoa beans.

As in Oaxaca City’s other markets, 20 de Noviembre market brims with food stalls serving everything from chicken soup to hot cocoa. Locals head to this part of the market for its tasajo, thinly sliced grilled beef, accompanied by grilled vegetables and a tlayuda tortilla. Photo by Adam Wiseman.

As in Oaxaca City’s other markets, 20 de Noviembre market brims with food stalls serving everything from chicken soup to hot cocoa. Locals head to this part of the market for its tasajo, thinly sliced grilled beef, accompanied by grilled vegetables and a tlayuda tortilla. Photo by Adam Wiseman.

I find an entire corner of the market dedicated to witchcraft and traditional medicine. Among the bags of snake powder, dried roots, copal incense, and statues of saints, I discover dust-covered Jenny Hanivers—dried stingrays shaped into mermaids, demons, or other mythical creatures—hanging from bits of twine. This haunting folk art, which is believed to have originated centuries ago in Antwerp, Belgium, found its way into Mexican brujería (witchcraft), where it functions as a talisman against evil spirits. The industrious bruja selling them informs me that the terrifying-looking poppet will protect me on my voyage and help me find my way to the sea and the snail dyers. My expedition now has an official mascot.

Since my visit, Oaxaca has suffered two powerful earthquakes, but my friends there say that the city’s and the region’s infrastructure is intact, with tourists welcome more than ever.

***

Although the actual snail dyeing takes place on the coast, the dyers of Oaxaca live in a small inland village. The drive into Pinotepa de Don Luis (not to be confused with the larger Pinotepa Nacional) doesn’t look very different from the approach to the previous dozen villages I’ve driven through. But as I get closer to the town plaza, I see most of the older Mixtec women wearing pozahuancos, the traditional wrap skirt woven with bright red, blue, and purple stripes. In front of the central market, I’m drawn to a woman wearing a pozahuanco with purple stripes much softer and uneven in tone than the others. I realise hers is the real thing, the red dyed with cochineal, the blue from indigo, and the purple hand dyed using the tixinda snail. Her name is Margarita Avendaño.

In Oaxaca the rich colours of textiles stem from long-held creative traditions. Miroslava Cruz Ferra wears heirloom attire and a white resplandor specific to southern Oaxaca. Photographed at a lizard conservation centre there, she holds an iguana, a symbol of the local people. Photo by Diego Huerta.

In Oaxaca the rich colours of textiles stem from long-held creative traditions. Miroslava Cruz Ferra wears heirloom attire and a white resplandor specific to southern Oaxaca. Photographed at a lizard conservation centre there, she holds an iguana, a symbol of the local people. Photo by Diego Huerta.

It turns out that Margarita is one of the most respected weavers in the region. She has had her work showcased at El Museo Textil de Oaxaca and the New York Botanical Garden. On a regular day she sits at her stall in the central Mercado Municipal. She weaves versions of the classic Mixtec pozahuancos from synthetically dyed cotton thread. A few times a year when she receives the snail-dyed thread from her brother Habacuc, she gets to make the genuine article.

Although it varies, it takes about three skeins of snail cotton to produce one pozahuanco. Since the snail dyers collectively make only 40 skeins per season, a completely naturally dyed wrap is considered an absolute treasure and family heirloom. Margarita wears hers with great pride.

Pinotepa de Don Luis has a colonial central plaza where everyone gathers to sell tamales, tacos, and textiles. Here Margarita insists I try the famed tamale de tichindas. Tichindas are small, sweet mussels that are cooked in banana leaf–wrapped tamales while still in their shell. The mussels open during cooking, infusing the cornmeal with their briny oceanic stock. This dish is a local specialty of Pinotepa; it’s also impossible to eat gracefully. As we share a small park bench, the plaza floods with traditional Mixtec carnival dancers. In every corner of the city men with wooden masks parade about, playing raucous music and performing elaborate line dances. Some of the dancers are sober, others not so much.

Leaving Margarita to tend to her market stall, I set off to explore the town. Most private yards have a calabash tree that is harvested to make ornate canteens incised with images of mystical animals. A family of shell dyers owns one of the homes I pass. The father shows me his purple-stained fingers; he returned from the coast just a week ago. His daughter had already used the purple string he brought back to intricately embroider a white dress. She offers me a sniff of the thread, which still smells strongly of the sea.

Before leaving, I visit Margarita at her home, where she dresses in the traditional style, simply wearing a pozahuanco held up by her loom strap. “This is how we used to dress, but now the younger generation wears shirts with their pozahuanco,” she says.

Margarita has dozens of synthetic pozahuancos in her collection, but at that moment, she has only one of the rare snail-dyed articles for sale. She eyes me running my fingers longingly over the soft uneven purple threads. “My brother had to hunt hundreds of snails to make that purple.”

“I know.” The fabric is clearly out of my price range, but in my heart I know I may never have this opportunity again. The timeless debate rages in my head: Do I pay my bills or purchase quixotic treasure?

The Phoenicians are thought to be the first civilisation to produce purple from marine molluscs on a large scale dating back to the 16th century B.C. Tens of thousands of murex snails would be crushed in dyeing centres such as Tyre, Lebanon, colouring garments reserved for the Mediterranean region’s most powerful people. Certain dynasties would even restrict who was legally permitted to wear royal purple. Across the Atlantic, the Mixtec people would later discover a mollusc of their own, and instead of crushing them by the lot, they would simply squeeze them one by one.

Restaurante Casa Oaxaca serves a tostada of worms, grasshoppers, and ants (left); Mescal distills in Santiago Matatlán, self-described world capital of mescal (centre); El Chimeco restaurant, in Bahía San Agustín, plates the day’s fresh catch (right). Photos by Adam Wiseman.

Restaurante Casa Oaxaca serves a tostada of worms, grasshoppers, and ants (left); Mescal distills in Santiago Matatlán, self-described world capital of mescal (centre); El Chimeco restaurant, in Bahía San Agustín, plates the day’s fresh catch (right). Photos by Adam Wiseman.

For centuries the men of Pinotepa de Don Luis have walked their eight-day pilgrimage to reach the hidden beach village of Bahía de San Agustín. Here they take small boats out to rocky coves where they find the tixinda. For weeks on end, the men scamper over the rocks hunting snails and dyeing cotton that they will bring to weavers like Margarita. The fewer than 20 living snail dyers now take cars and have government-issued permits that allow them to legally harvest a few times a year. Margarita’s brother has been snail dyeing since his youth.

I meet Habacuc and his son at a restaurant in Bahía de San Agustín. He agrees to let me join them for a day of tixinda dyeing. Habacuc orders the grilled red snapper with chipotle peppers, and I am easily talked into the fresh iguana. The owners insist I drink the iguana’s blood mixed with mescal to keep me strong while harvesting snails. After lunch, we take the 20-minute boat ride to Isla San Agustín.

Once on the uninhabited island, Habacuc tosses a skein of white cotton over his shoulder and takes off barefoot over a barnacle-covered jetty. So begins the daylong Easter egg hunt. In one hand, he holds a stick that he uses to pry loose the golf ball–size snails he finds stuck deep between the rocks.

When he streams the snail exudate onto the cotton, it isn’t purple but a whitish yellow. After milking the tixinda, Habacuc places the unharmed snail back into the water to recover.

Habacuc and his son repeat this process for the next several hours. Habacuc’s speed and agility are incredible. I do my best to keep up and not fall into the surf. Seeing my obsessive tenacity, he finally allows me to help him.

Thrilled, I reach into a crevasse between the rocks, trying to extract a particularly large tixinda. I quickly turn the freed shell upside down with the opening facing the sky. Imme-diately, the snail squirts out its cream-hued exudate, filling the knobby shell like a small shot glass of milk. I carefully extend my arm so as not to spill the contents. Habacuc smiles approvingly and pours it over the cotton.

At Casa Cruz, in Teotitlán del Valle, indigo is ground by hand (centre); Indigo dyes items such as hair wraps (left); Skeins of snail-dyed purple dry on Isla San Agustín (right). Photos by Kim Fornal (purple-dyed yarn) and Adam Wiseman.

At Casa Cruz, in Teotitlán del Valle, indigo is ground by hand (centre); Indigo dyes items such as hair wraps (left); Skeins of snail-dyed purple dry on Isla San Agustín (right). Photos by Kim Fornal (purple-dyed yarn) and Adam Wiseman.

At the end of the day, we all crawl down to the beach and start to build camp. After gathering some urchins and sea limpets from the rocks to eat, I collapse onto the sand. My head is sunburned, my back is sore, my feet are bloody, and I couldn’t be happier.

Habacuc strolls over and drapes the dyed skeins of cotton over a fallen tree. The snail exudate has oxidised, transforming from yellow to blue and finally into unrelenting purple. As the remaining bits of blue fabric fade to violet, the evening sky behind it perfectly follows suit.

Every drop of colour produced directly from the Earth carries with it not only the essence of its native terrain but also the profound spiritual intention of those who have toiled to gather it. Their labour and sacrifice make me ashamed of the times I squandered the gift that is colour, a gift that Oaxaca celebrates daily.

The striped pozahuanco I did end up buying from Margarita doesn’t sit in a drawer. It isn’t displayed on a wall. Back home in New York when attending formal events, I will often wear a black tuxedo and wrap the pozahuanco around my waist like a kilt or sarong. When I wear it, I can almost smell the salty air and feel the spray from the waves back in Isla San Agustín. I dream of pulling primordial gifts from the sea and painting the world purple.

Travel Wise: Oaxaca

Insider Tour Guide

Traditions Mexico

Eric Mindling of Traditions Mexico has been organising immersive tours and expeditions through Oaxaca since 1997. His skilled guides have access to even the most remote communities (traditionsmexico.com).

Where to Stay

Hotel Los Amantes

In an updated colonial-era building in Oaxaca City’s historic centre, this boutique hotel fills its public spaces and 10 suites with contemporary art for sale (hotellosamantes.com).

Parador de Alcalá

Also in Oaxaca’s historic centre, this 18th-century former mansion offers 21 luxe rooms and a blue-tiled rooftop pool. Traditional Mexican breakfast is included (paradordealcalaoaxaca.mx).

Hotel Casavegas

Outside Oaxaca City, base yourself in Pinotepa Nacional, which has big-city conveniences compared with smaller villages such as Pinotepa de Don Luis. Rest up at this no-frills hotel before venturing out to the coast (+011-52-954-543-5611).

Where to Eat and Drink

Caldo de Piedra

Northeast of Oaxaca City, in the town of Tlalixtac de Cabrera, Caldo de Piedra’s house specialty is a traditional soup cooked tableside using fire-heated stones (caldodepiedra.com).

Restaurante Casa Oaxaca

Alejandro Ruiz’s acclaimed kitchen in Oaxaca City celebrates the state’s flavours in sophisticated ways, from rabbit leg with yellow mole sauce to Oaxacan chocolate mousse (casaoaxacaelrestaurante.com).

  • Justin Fornal is a writer and video producer currently researching rare indigenous textiles around the world.

  • Adam Wiseman is born and raised in Mexico, and has travelled to all 32 Mexican states for his book Mexico: A Culinary Quest.

  • Diego Huerta is based in Austin and started his six-year “Inside Oaxaca” project to photograph the customs of Oaxacan dress.

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