Marietta Bernstorff was pissed off. Leaning on her horn, she shouted at the cars in front of her as a group of protesters, wielding red hammer-and-sickle flags, approached a major intersection in Oaxaca. "Move it, you idiots!" she yelled to her fellow drivers. "You're not going to make it before you get stuck!"
Protest blockades are a regular part of life in Oaxaca. But Marietta, a fiffy-eight-year-old artist and curator who divides her time between Oaxaca and Los Angeles, was not about to let this one stop her.
"I'm used to driving in Los Angeles," she said, as she made a series of sharp turns, evading the growing traffic snarl. With a trunk full of fabric scraps, she was on a mission to visit a group of women artists she has been mentoring for the last eight years in the little town of San Francisco Tanivet, about forty miles from Oaxaca. Along with the scraps, she was carrying a pile of stenciled templates of paintings made by Fred Escher, a well-known American painter, who is commissioning the women of Tanivet to make embroidered copies of his work.
The artists, who call themselves Las Hormigas Bordadoras de Tanivet--the "embroidering ants" of Tanivet--have gained international recognition for their fabric art, which expresses the pain of family separation and immigration to the United States. They have traveled to exhibits in London and Los Angeles and are featured in a documentary film. More fundamentally, they are now generating a steady income from their work.
Tanivet has lost more than half of its residents through migration to the United States. The town has a population of 250, but about 300 former residents live in the Los Angeles area. One of the themes of the hormigas' work is their sense of loss as their own children have left to cross the border illegally.
Marietta, who was born in Chiapas and grew up in Mississippi, is fluent in both Spanish and English. She first met the women of Tanivet after she organized Mujeres Artistas y el Maiz, or MAMAZ, a nonprofit women's art collective in Oaxaca. Its original focus was on corn, a staple in Mexico and a hot political topic after NAFTA flooded the Mexican market with American corn, driving up prices and threatening farmers' livelihoods.
"I started with corn," Marietta says. "But then I saw they had a bigger issue in life--migration. Everyone was gone. So they started with that and they flew."
Marietta has many contacts in the art world, which she drew on to teach the women sewing...