Meet The 3 Feisty Women Keeping Family And Culture Alive Over A Century Of Change In Oaxaca, Mexico

Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher. Tweet her at @Ann_dLandes and read her other writing at xterrafirma.net.

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At Artesanías Juana Cata, on the corner of Alcalá and Gurrión streets in Oaxaca City, Maricruz Rosales Cruz is queen. On the day of our interview, she sweeps in to greet me, adorned in a dress of ball-gown proportions and freshly dyed bright orange hair. Her daughters Ana and Jorgina Pérez Castellanos fuss around her, making sure their mother is comfortable.

The shop sits at some contrast to the beautifully ordered textiles, figurines, jewellery and assorted other colorful artisan products that animate the streets of the city centre. Instead of enticing you with perfectly presented arrangements of shape and colour; this place, run by doyenne Maricruz and her daughter, gets you in with its haphazard display of hand-made huipils, tunics, skirts, and long dresses billowing from the wall. You pass through the door and enter a store piled high with textiles of all sizes, embroidered patterns, and colours, interspersed with faded photographs, texts and paintings in old frames. Pope John Paul II grins out from a dog-eared poster under the cash register; interceding for a heavily sculpted crucified Christ in a corner above. A portrait of María Sabina, the famous Mazatec mushroom healer and poet, hangs in another corner, depicted in another).

Customers looking to buy something must dig for their treasure. On my first visit, my friend, Sara, and I found a maxi dress with multiple neckline options made from a thick, rangy curtain material and a bright purple tunic sewn with gold triangles, respectively.

Whilst one fossicks, Ana and Jorgina call to each other across the two ground floor rooms of the store, and sometimes from the floor above: negotiating prices, locations, and, always, their mother’s activities. Many of the photographs on the wall chronicle Maricruz’s life, showing her dressed in everything from Golden Age Hollywood chic to a costume from a performance of the legend El tigre y la tlacuache.

On this particular afternoon, they have opened a bottle of Lambrusco,and, over its rosy bubbles, I am treated to the story of a Oaxaca family’s fortunes, with live illustration provided by our shop surroundings.

Of indigenous, French and Lebanese heritage, Maricruz’s family arrived in Oaxaca from the north of Mexico in 1910, as dictator Porfirio Díaz was falling and the Mexican Revolution beginning. “Everything changed, for everyone, with the Revolution”, says Maricruz, gesturing to a photograph of her mother, Dolores Cruz Palacios. This, of course, is not an unusual narrative, especially for society families. With the end of a dictatorship followed by continuous political instability and a considerable redistribution of land and wealth, local cultures also changed, such as norms around gender and class. (That year, Dolores , had been invited to the United States to sing the Mexican national anthem at a public event, but was disallowed by her mother, Paula, because the dress she would wear was going to show some ankle. “After 1910”, Maricruz reflects, “Dolores might have gone anyway”).

Maricruz herself studied fine arts, including ballet and French. She worked as an actress (including educational theatre in rural towns), stylist, and dance teacher; among many other roles in arts, crafts, and culture. Ruminating on her studies, the local diva noted the importance of education for women, who tend to “stop their education once they pair up with a man”. To be sure, it’s the absence of men – in the shop, and in the photographs on the walls, that struck me (a fan of The House of Elliot, Grey Gardens, and Patty and Selma) about this place.

Dolores established the Artesanías Juana Cata shop in 1975 – naming it after the extraordinary Juana Catalina Romero, a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur, reformer, and diplomat who is often mischaracterised as the lover of Porfirio Diaz. The shop did very well selling traditional and contemporary clothing – it was a time of particular growth in the local tourism industry, which was patronised by Mexicans from around the country and travellers from the United States and Europe.

With the shop flourishing the family was able to employ dressmakers and tailors to make the clothes,  while Maricruz and her siblings worked elsewhere. In 1985, Maricruz became a tour guide, as the industry around visitors to Oaxaca continued to grow; and later took on the running of the business, which is now in the hands of her daughters.

As a young woman, Maricruz adopted Ana and Jorgina; along with a son, Remigio. This one man in the immediate family runs Los Baúles de Juana Cata, a successful textiles store a couple of streets away; and who is globally renowned for his work contracting the services of traditional weaving cooperatives and keeping indigenous textile-work alive. The task of maintaining the original shop, the women tell me, has become more difficult in recent years. Finding and contracting people who can make the clothes by hand has become harder while the cost of utilities for running the business has gone up. The three not only work in the store but live there too. They each have a section of their own with a couch to sleep on, and I spy a toastie maker and microwave amongst the store’s clothes, photographs, and traditional paraphernalia. It seems somewhat unjust that such grand women – Maricruz a seasoned actress and stylist who has fully occupied every inch of her life; her daughters a talented designer (Jorgina) and businesswoman (Ana) – have to live like this, but they laugh it off.

A true family of post-revolutionary Mexico, they know that fortunes rise and fall, and in the meantime, they have each other’s good company and shared lot, and a long and colorful story to tell to random foreigners when they inquire.