Teacher, are we meeting tomorrow?” asked Noe, shaking dirt from his shoes after a long afternoon of working with the Flower Growing Association.
“Sure,” I said, “right after my English class.”
“Just you wait,” Noe told me. “When you see my art, you will say, ‘Oh my God, it is so beautiful.’” He had broken into heavily accented English for this last bit, and we both laughed.
Twelve hours later, I was in Noe’s house in Uricho, looking at his hand-woven rebozo shawls spread out in front of me on the table. I hardly dared to touch them. “Oh my God,” I said to him. “It is so beautiful.” This time neither of us laughed; we simply beamed.
Noe de la Luz Benito is, at age 30, president of the Association of Artisans in Uricho. His work has won several major prizes, and for good reason – Noe (pronounced no-AY) has dedicated much of the last six years to the traditional craftsmanship of his people, the indigenous Purhepecha.
The rebozo shawl spread out in front of me is the product of no less than eight months of daily work. Noe weaves these creations by hand, thread by thread, tying beadwork into them to create the designs and symbols of the Purhepechan people. The thread he uses is so fine it cannot be bought in a store – he makes it himself.
“The technique of this art is completely unique to here, to Uricho,” Noe told me. “My family has done this for many generations. And it has never been lost. There are maybe 10 families in all of the pueblo that have done this technique. Right now, no more than three people have the knowledge to do it, and I am the only one who goes to exhibitions.”
Noe learned this craftsmanship from his great-grandmother, who lived to age 99. “One day I went to her and said, ‘It’s time. I need to learn to do this.’ And so she taught me,” he said.
Though Noe was born and raised in Uricho, he hasn’t always lived here; like so many, necessity forced him to go to the United States on a work contract when he was 22. It was this economically driven cross-cultural contact that cemented Noe’s passionate identification as a Purhepechan. “There, in the United States, I came to value more what I have here,” he told me. “And so I told my great-grandmother, ‘Teach me our art.’
“It was out of respect for my people, who learned this craft during many, many years. I said to myself, ‘if I let this knowledge get lost now, it will never be recovered.’”
The decision to devote himself to learning this time-consuming, intricate craftsmanship of his people was no small thing. “When I decided to sit down and really learn this, it took so much dedication. If you are irritated or distracted, it will not come out well.”
Noe has fought hard to maintain the traditions of the Purhepechan people and to learn their arts. Though his art sells for a high price, especially in competitions, it is still not enough money to live on. Noe has had to balance his art with labor contracts outside of Mexico. Right now, he is working with the Flower Growing Association, in hopes it will allow him to stay in Uricho. And he is completely committed to keeping his people’s traditions alive.
Later that day, a dozen Purhepechan women and I piled into the back of an old pickup truck with Noe and drove up to the hills just behind the town, to little-known, ancient Purhepechan ruins. These sacred places were akin to churches before Christianity came to Michoacan. The intricately built stone pavilions used no mortar; lush vegetation partially covered and surrounded them. The air felt still, as though unaccustomed to being breathed by people.
“I go up to these older ruins, and the wind there speaks to me, guides me,” Noe told me. “I believe in energy, and I take energy from these places. And I tell my ancestors, ‘I made this art in honor of all of you, I went to a competition, and I won.’”
In his standard outfit of a hand-woven shirt and a baseball cap, a combination that never seemed incongruous on him, Noe smiled. “I’m sure that anyone who walks by would think that I was crazy, talking to the wind. But I know that I am not. I am now, on the road of my life, just beginning to truly succeed.”
Back in the pickup, we bounced down the gravel road toward town. Noe grinned at me suddenly. “Not bad, eh, teacher?” he said. “I told you you’d be impressed.”
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com