snail dye weavers

ON THE TRAIL OF

THE PURPLE SNAIL

“Don Luis, aquí." “Aquí Don Luis," yelled a group of white-shirted men, drivers of pickup trucks with benches and covered with tarps to protect passengers from sun and rain.

We were in the crowded, central bus terminal in Pinotepa Nacional near the border of Oaxaca and Guererro. We chose a handsome young driver because he invited me to sit next to him in the truck's cab. The probably-vinyl front seat was upholstered neatly in hand-woven white cotton trimmed with purple stripes. The seat covering and the intricately embroidered-by-his-grandmother piece on the dashboard signaled to me that we were on track.

covered wagon

Two women friends and myself (three of a “certain age"), were searching for the remote Mixtec village of Pinotepa de Don Luis, where women weave with a purple dye harvested from the plicopurpura pansa mollusk. It's the only place in the world where people are still weaving with this kind of dye. Not only is this area of Oaxaca remote, it has always seemed a bit mysterious to me--historically, a place of secrets, and a lair of pirates and robust coffee traders. It was shut off from the rest of the world until 1982 when the coastal highway became paved.

The only information we had to guide us in our off-the-beaten path search for these weavers was the name of a women's cooperative, Tixinda. Tixinda means sacred caracol in the Mixtec language.

The covered wagon we boarded was well-suited for the trip. Although the narrow, twisting road that went through several small pueblos was paved, the rugged landscape of rocky fields grazed by a smattering of cows and goats hinted of a "wild west" lifestyle. We passed donkeys loaded with firewood, led by men and women who live in these remote villages, sustained mainly by farming and handicrafts. Fence posts of tree branches strung with barbed wire separated the fields and prevented animals from straying into the road. Farmers merely cut the branches and stuck them in the ground, yet some, not prone to die, continued to sprout green leaves, growing into young trees.

weaver on the patio.

Arriving in Don Luis, we were greeted by a group of curious onlookers. The indigenous, elderly women wore their traditional, horizontal-striped wrap-around skirts (posahuancos) topped by an apron-like halter top. An English-speaking man approached us because someone had motioned to him. He seemed proud to be speaking English. He flagged a taxi and instructed the driver to take us to the Tixinda cooperative store. It was only a few blocks along cobblestoned streets, but we would have been confused by the numerous twists and turns. There was no weaving going on and only a smattering of weavings for sale, including handbags and huipiles (loose fitting dresses). Disappointed, we thought maybe it was the wrong time of day, or we were in the wrong place?

I found the answer a few days later in Puerto Escondido, where. I was in the right place at the right time. At "Casa Tejesuenos," a large palapa-style house perched on a hillside. Sunday shoppers responded to a once-a-year event, sponsored by "Dreamweavers Tixinda," a project spearheaded by Patrice Patrillie. "We are creating an awareness of and market for the Mixtec weavers of Pinotepa de Don Luis," she explained.

Three weavers on the patio.

The beautiful Mixtec weavings (bedspreads, tablecloths, runners), covered every piece of furniture: tables, beds, chairs, lounges. Huipiles, blouses and shawls hung from portable rods. On the porch, women from Pinotepa de Don Luis were spinning cotton and weaving on backstrap looms.

Eduardo

Siéntase” said a good-looking teenager, pointing to a chair next to him. My browsing and shopping completed, I held a plate with a steaming tamale and did indeed need a place to sit.

The young man, his smooth skin the color of a mocha latte, said his name was Eduardo. He brought me a glass of cool jamaica and I told him I had visited his pueblo a few days before. This both pleased and surprised him.

To prove that I had indeed been to his village, I showed him a photo (still in my camera) of two young men and their grandmother. Eduardo said they were his friends. He then went into the kitchen and fetched me another tamale and glass of jamaica.

Next, Habacuc Avendano, a stocky native Mixtec from the inland pueblo of Pinotepa de Don Luis showed us a documentary DVD, in which he explained how he and other men from his village go snail hunting. I saw how, using a small wooden rod, they gently pried the dark, rough-shelled mollusks (about the size of golf balls) from the rocky crevices of Oaxaca's southern coast. With his thumb and forefinger, Habacuc squeezed the feet of the snail, which elicited a squirt of urine. This made sense to me. If my feet were squeezed by a creature 1000 times my size, I feel certain I, too, would pee.

After urinating, the snail shot out a white milky substance. Habacuc explained that this creamy, acidic and rancid-smelling juice is the animal's defense against most enemies. However, it doesn't deter the Mixtec snailers. That sour white liquid is what they're after, because when squirted onto a skein of spun cotton and dried in the sun, the yarn turns yellow, then green and finally into shades of purple. I watched Habacuc (in the film) douse a skein hanging on his forearm with dab after dab of snail sap. He explained to us that it takes 400 shells to dye one 12-ounce skein of cotton. Working in pairs six months at a time, each man collects enough secretions to dye five skeins a year. The harvesters can only work about three hours a day during low tide because that's when they can reach the crevices where the snails live. Habacuc noted that after they collect the precious liquid, the snail is returned to its rocky roost, still alive.

Watching the labor-intensive process, I wondered who on earth discovered this snail hidden among watery nooks on Mexico's Pacific coast. No one knows for sure, but Habacuc believes the tradition dates back thousands of years. He said his ancestors honored the sacred snail during full moon ceremonies.

plicopurpura pansa

Today, the snail harvesters still work during the full moon but only from October to March, because they know the mating season follows. They also know that it takes one moon cycle for the cherished liquid to regenerate and so the snail juice gatherers return to the same site no sooner than 28 days. They also capture only mature mollusks.

Snailing during low tide is dangerous business. Habacuc told me that, through the centuries, the sea has claimed many a Mixtec snailer. “You have to know a lot about sea currents, the weather, and moon cycles, just like fishermen,” he said. “You have to hang on for dear life. Those that die, we bury them there.”

He invited me, along with several other adventuresome folks, to accompany him on a snail hunt. However, I declined. Dodging wires, manholes, and sundry obstacles on Oaxaca's sidewalks is challenging enough. I can't imagine myself balancing high above the surf and slip-sliding on coastal rocks to squeeze juice out of snails. Maybe I missed a chance of a lifetime?

In ancient times, the journey from the mountain village of Pinotepa de Don Luis to the sea took several days by foot, Habacuc said. Today, because of pollution and poaching, the purple snail population is one-fourth what it was in 1950 and the numbers are decreasing each year.

Habacuc Avendano

The snails are found only in secluded coves in Bahías de Huatulco, 130 miles southeast of Pinotepa de Don Luis, one of the few places in the world where the purpura pansa mollusk still exists. This is a journey of five hours by bus or truck from Pinotepa de Don Luis to Huatulco National Park. This protected area was created in 1998, when a group of concerned citizens called the government's attention to the endangered species. Snailers must be licensed and only 25 permits are issued. Habacuc's license hung from his neck like a cherished piece of jewelry.

Due to marketing help from their foreign friends, especially Patrice Perillie, director of Dreamweavers, interest in the purple dye snailers and weavers has spread throughout Mexico and internationally. The textile museum in Oaxaca City occasionally exhibits their products and invites the weavers to present demonstrations.

In August 2015, a group of the Tixinda weavers presented their textiles and weaving methods in the New York Botanical Garden.

Author's note: Many years ago, while shopping in Oaxaca City for a huipil, I spotted one--a soft white cotton with delicate purple designs woven into the fabric. I was searching for an everyday house dress, so the price shocked me. It was beyond my expectations and my budget at that time. “Probably the sales clerk thinks I'm a rich foreigner,” I thought back then. Now I understand the price and the value of that dress.

Photo Credits

All photos were taken by Geri Anderson with the exception of the snail photo. The snail photo was taken by Phil Liff-Grieff and can be found at naturalista.mx.