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A Weaver’s Inspiration

In Chimayo, New Mexico weavers have been at their wooden self-powered looms since the 1700s. However, it’s only recently that the world has discovered their work.

“The Japanese are now 60 percent of our business, they have a fascination with the Southwest,” said Irvin Trujillo, a sixth generation Chimayo master weaver whose work has been displayed in Washington’s Smithsonian and whose pieces can cost as much as $30,000.

Trujillo, a recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship in 2007, combines natural flower dyes he blends himself with bold geometric patterns that are not traditionally Southwestern. Many things inspire Trujillo. A rug commissioned by Maximilian, Mexico’s Austrian born emperor, as a gift for Napoleon III had a star pattern that resurfaces in Trujillo’s work. More recently, when Chimayo’s only bank was robbed Trujillo created a tapestry. When his parents died, he did a depression piece. The space shuttle disaster and Aztec-inspired Matachines dances he saw on the Chimayo plaza also led to large weavings.

“What inspires me? I don’t have a television but when I go on vacation I watch it. Japanese anime and Disney cartoons inspire me.” With his $20,000 fellowship award he fixed the roof over his studio and the tractor he uses on his 10-acre farm.

Tourists, Yes; Gringo Residents, No

If the world is shrinking and becoming homogenized, consider what hasn’t changed in Chimayo. The adobe village has around 3,000 residents, many of whom trace their ancestry to the first Spanish families who arrived in today’s northern New Mexico from yesterday’s colonial Mexico. Chimayo’s residents survive primarily on their creative traditions, weaving, tin-smithing, woodworking and the painting of religious frescos, Santos and retablos. Art and religion is their bond.

The Lourdes of America, El Santuario de Chimayo is a wood and adobe handcrafted church built in 1814 that attracts 30,000 pilgrims during Holy Week, who crawl or walk from Mexico and the Southwest. They come seeking solace and healing from the small pit of holy dirt that the church houses in a dark back room. Discarded metal crutches line the church’s interior adobe walls.

The village sits beneath the brooding 12,000-foot high Sangre de Cristo (blood of Christ) mountains in the sage covered barrancas along the Santa Cruz River. It’s an inhospitable place unless you’re a coyote or a rattlesnake, or have Hispanic ties to the 16th century. “I’ve lived here 27 years and they still consider me an outsider,” says Wendell Barnett, a transplanted Anglo Californian who teaches school in nearby Espanola.

Chimayo is cold in winter and to survive, the original settlers brought 5,000 sheep whose wool was more valued than the meat. They sheared the wool and with hand made looms converted it to bedding and clothing. Small herds of these purebred churro sheep still roam the slopes of the Sangre de Cristos and a pound of their wool can cost $75. Top rug makers want the wool right off the sheep’s back; they don’t want anyone touching it. They can smell its purity. Making rugs is their legacy. A Northern New Mexican rug can last 120 years if the wool comes directly off the back of a purebred churro sheep.

“Navajos will buy it because they know it’s the best for making rugs. They hand me a squash blossom necklace, they pick out the wool and a year later they come back and give me the cash,” says Rose Vigil, whose cousin raises the sheep. She sells the wool and other weaving supplies including hand built looms operated by foot in her store Los Vigiles Living Traditions.

Spiritual Low Riders

Chimayo has been touched by modernity. There have been drug busts and opera composer Robert Ashley has described the town as the “spiritual capital of the low-rider world”. Customized chrome hubcaps adorn blue-painted wood windows on some 200-year-old adobe homes, but the weaving tradition ties the past to the present. Trujillo’s daughter studies weaving in kindergarten and he teaches there once a week. Trujillo, along with Robert Ortega who is perhaps the most commercially successful rug dealer, pushes to keep the tradition alive.

There are about 300 weavers working in and around Chimayo and their work has gone global through the Internet and tourism. The lure of Santa Fe, just 24 miles to the south, brings a steady stream of Japanese and European visitors to Chimayo to seek out the weavers.

Ortega relies on those tourists who find Chimayo on their way down the scenic back road to Taos, but he is fiercely independent about how he sells his rugs, blankets and clothing. When he inherited the store from his father in 1990 he stopped selling his rugs through Fred Harvey stores in national parks because he wanted to control his own destiny. He sells just from his own shop now, with his looms in the back room. He uses the Internet but grudgingly. “Our product really doesn’t lend itself to techno savvy people who want to buy over the Internet. This is something you need to touch, see and experience. Every piece is unique,” Ortega said.

Trujillo’s pieces are perhaps the most unique and marry the past to the future. His father Jabobo was a master weaver and by age 10, Trujillo was creating his own pieces. He studied engineering in college but found work in an office stifling and soon returned to Chimayo. He was mentored by international masters, Jean Pierre LaResert from France and Archie Brennon from England, but Trujillo found his oeuvre when he infused an ancient Indonesian Ikat technique with kaleidoscopic colors. Most would consider the end result art, but Trujillo says, “I consider myself a weaver not an artist.”

Cult of Suffering

The fusion of fiber-art and religion is what makes Chimayo unique. Most creative Mecca’s, such as nearby Taos, are liberal free-wheeling places where outsiders with ideas flourish, but the Santuario de Chimayo and its homespun religious roots makes Chimayo a relic of 17th century mores.

Chimayo was the northern extension of Spain’s new world explorers; it was so remote it didn’t have priests. The locals became self-anointed clerics, adopting self-flagellation and celibacy in their homespun cult of suffering. Today the Santuario host’s contemporary sufferers and has become a refuge during the Iraq and Afghan wars. Survivors of World War II’s Battaan Death March included many Northern New Mexican Hispanic men who began making pilgrimages to Chimayo after they came home. They said their faith in the little church helped them survive the Philippines, and the warrior/pilgrim tradition in Chimayo has grown since.

In a recent Easter pilgrimage a group of 15 Native American women walked to Chimayo from Albuquerque to pay homage to Lori Piestewa, a Hopi woman, who was the first Native American woman to die in foreign combat with the U.S. military. She was killed in Iraq. Others come to pray for their drug addicted sons or alcoholic abusing husbands. The cult of suffering never ends, but the causes of suffering change with time.

Making rugs on a wooden loom also causes suffering. A weaver’s feet fuel the loom, but the pressure is on his knees and injuries are common. “Shuttle work is strenuous on your back, your eyes and your knees. I’ll do it as long as I can, or when I’m not trying to prove myself any longer,” says Trujillo, who at times has suffered financially but now can afford a television. If he wants one.