28 Jan San Agustin Etla
Discovering San Agustin Etla
We’ve been hearing about Etla for some time. At first it was confusing; it seemed to be in many places at once. As soon as we had a sense of it, we’d hear something slightly different, as if the place itself was in perpetual motion. We later visited Yetla (in the Papaloapan River basin) and thought perhaps we’d landed in the elusive Etla. We ultimately discovered that Etla actually refers to a municipality with many towns ending in Etla, forevermore known to this Mexico-loving duo as “The Etlas”. Peppered throughout the Oaxacan Mountain range, these villages are unique, cultural gems.
Etla means “place of abundant beans” in Nahuatl: Etl being “bean” and Tlan being “abundance”. In Zapotec it’s known as Loohvana, “a place that maintains you,” a reference to the immense fertility of the land in this region.
San Agustin Etla, about 40 minutes outside of the Oaxaca City, is magnificent. Robed in greenery, its mountains cradle abundant swells of water from 9 tributaries that create the Rio Grande de San Agustín. With drought as a constant threat to the capital city, these sources of water are precious resources. The sound of running streams, soft rain falling from and through a thin fog, and the sight of the verdant mountains left us loose-mouthed and starry-eyed. At the pinnacle sits the Centro de las Artes San Agustín.
Founded in 1583, San Augustin Etla was built over a Zapotec settlement dated around 300 B.C.E. Famous for its fertility, its lands abound with pines, oaks, and laurels, with orchids and roses, with peppermint, peaches and coffee. From that richness surges with life like hummingbirds and woodpeckers, lizards and boar.
Home of the Centro de las Artes San Agustín Etla, also known as CaSa, San Augustin Etla has largely gained its fame due to the beloved cultural art center, originally the First Textile Industrial Center, founded in 1883. The mill ran until the 1980’s and was not used again until 2000, when the space was acquired by Toledo and redesigned by architect Claudina López Morales. They received financial support from CONACULTA through the National Center for the Arts, Oaxacan government, and private donors to become the first ecological art center in Latin America.
Thanks to the original yarn and fabric factories in Vista Hermosa and San José, the mill came into existence, and, many years later, was converted and re-imagined. Toledo is a personal favorite, so I was ecstatic to experience his vision. It didn’t disappoint.
The dreamy, surreal quality of Toledo’s art installations and water features juxtaposed against the converted textile mill set the perfect scene for the rotating art expositions. Steeped in history, the textile mills closed when petroleum based fabrics hit the market, leaving it abandoned and presenting the opportunity for Toledo in all of his artistic genius to re-design the industrial space to hold workshops and a variety of presentations of different mediums and genres of art.
It now houses 2 large art galleries: on the ground floor it hosts an ecological photography lab, a traditional non-toxic graphics workshop with ElectroEtch, a digital graphics workshop, an exhibition space and, on the second floor, a large performance space adorned with the old machines once used by the textile mill. Outside, sprawling rooftop patios overlook the incredible views that have made the region famous among artists for such a long time.
The primary purpose of the art center is to teach arts and production focused on ecological issues and techniques, as well as serving the local community, They offer courses, workshops, seminars and degrees in areas like musical composition, stage direction, production, curatorship and management, and more. They even offer artist in residence housing, with six rooms at their disposal for visiting artists.
The water features that make the building seem eerily flooded pour over into waterfalls that enclose the bathroom in walls of rushing water. An almost hidden flight of red earth stairs formed in dramatic cubes is tucked behind an unassuming wall and leads to a perfectly green garden, its grass a Technicolor shade full of life, lined with spiny, swollen Ceiba trees. (Our best guess is Ceiba chodatii – what’s yours? Scroll down to see them.) The grass was so soft and inviting; we laid in it for quite some time despite the delicate drizzle.
Next to it, there is a beautiful, natural paper making workshop where paper is made using cotton and natural fibers; it’s filled with strange relics of past times like rustic presses. A double staircase with an epic fountain in front marks the entryway to the round gazebo-like gallery.
While Oaxaca City overflows with museums, abundant art galleries, ceramic studios, and printmaking associations, a visit to San Agustin Etla is worth it. Its artistic bohemian vibe and spectacular views wrapped in nature’s finest, makes for a relaxed and beautiful day in the country.
Wondering how to get there?
There are collective taxis leaving from two different official sites – El Carcamo and San Agustin Etla. Both are located on calle Prolongacion de Valeria Trujano, next to the Central de Abastos. Private taxis cost 200 pesos. Be aware that returning can be complicated as taxis stop running after a certain time.