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In the arid mountains in the south of Mexico, the 8000 Nahua villagers of Tlamacazapa earn a meager living by weaving palm baskets, an ancient art form preserved over centuries.

Faced with relentless hardship, physical weakness and a toxic environment, women in Tlamacazapa are gradually transforming their lives – they are becoming stronger, more resilient, able to respond with greater creativity and assurance to the demands of their lives. This re-weaving of their lives is a convoluted story, one that illustrates the human condition and also shows a way forward.

According to local legend and historical accounts, Tlamacazapa was founded over 500 years ago when three families fled into the mountains to escape the invasion of Hernan Cortes and his men during the conquest of Mexico as well as Christian missionaries.  They settled where they found water. These origins explain Tlamacazapa’s name, a Nahuatl word meaning “people of fear.”

Starting in the 1500s, men walked to the Taxco silver mines, 15 kilometers away, to sell goods like charcoal, firewood and fodder and to work in the mines.


Since its settlement, Tlamacazapa’s rough and dry terrain has allowed only marginal subsistence agriculture. Today, those families with land continue to plant corn but harvest very little.

Tlamacazapa slowly grew in size, forming three barrios or neighbourhoods - San Juan, San Lucas and Santiago - each with its own Catholic church. The first public dirt road was constructed relatively recently in 1977 and the first primary school built in the early 1980s. Today, less than 25% of villagers of Tlamacazapa speak their Indigenous language, Nahuatl, fluently.

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About forty percent of families live in stick huts with tarpaper roofs, and little furniture or protection from the wind, rain and cold. Others live in concrete block houses, most often overcrowded with a different family occupying each room. Twice a day the poorest families eat tortillas with a thin soup of rice, onion and tomato, or an egg, a spoonful of beans or piece of cheese, but many times with nothing but salt. More than half of the women are illiterate.

Water is a constant worry. In the dry season, wells dry up. In the rainy season, these wells fill with dirty runoff of garbage and excrement. Villagers laboriously fetch water from open wells, strapped to their heads or across their shoulders. Pumped water from a spring five kilometers away provides more water for distribution but that water is now sold – the poorest families cannot buy it.


Laboratory studies reveal arsenic and lead in the water and soil, both natural but harmful metals. Further studies also show toxic metals in the palm dyes and in the clay cooking pots. In malnourished people, these toxins interact synergistically, producing a silent crisis of slow poisoning.

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The village history is remarkably similar to that of other Indigenous peoples in the Americas – long years of racial discrimination and marginalization by church and government authorities, with welfare and educational systems that reproduced inequality and passive dependency. The overall result was a rapid loss of language and cultural identity, and a cascade of consequences – general feelings of humiliation and shame, fearfulness, violence and vulnerability. 

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