Bright, beautiful Otomi blankets - sometimes called Tenangos - are a lively addition to any room. With their oversized patterns and whimsical layouts, they bring a sense of energy and movement that has made them one of today's most followed trends in global design. In 2012 the French fashion powerhouse Hermes debuted a line of scarves featuring Tenango inspired designs (1) instantly making them a well-known quantity in fashion as well as design. It is less known, however, that the fun colors and festive designs that are the hallmark of Otomi fabrics belie a tradition that stretches far into the history of Mesoamerica.
The Otomi People of the Valley of Mexico
The Otomi people are believed to have been the earliest inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico, predating even the Nahuatl speaking populations that would eventually give rise to the Aztec Empire (2). Then as now, the Otomi existed over a wide area of greatly varied terrain. As a result, scholars distinguish between Sierra, Highland and Mezquital Valley Otomi populations (ibid.). The name Otomi is originally thought to have been given by the Aztecs to this group of people who describe themselves as Hnahu, or "those who speak a nasal language" (3). The name Otomi proceeds from the Nahuatl root words, otoac ("walk") and mitl ("arrow")(4). These combine to form the words otomitl/ totomitl, from which Otomi is directly taken and which mean "those who hunt birds with bow and arrow (5)."
Influence of the Toltec, Aztec, and the Spanish
Before the arrival of the Aztec, the Sierra Otomi were first annexed by the Toltec, whose empire fell in 1168 AD (6). The rise of the Aztec Empire in 1400 AD again saw the Otomi conquered by a more massive nation, again. However, conquest for the Otomi did not mean complete marginalization (7). Despite their incorporation by larger groups throughout their history, the Otomi were known as fierce warriors (8). They were thought to have been important fixtures at Tula, the capital of the Toltec Empire, as well as at the legendary temple city of Teotihuacan (though it is now believed that the city predates Toltec culture.)(9). Later, the Aztec would employ the Otomi as mercenaries to such a degree that their name became synonymous with the Aztec warrior class (10). When The Spanish Conquistadors arrived in what they thought of as "The New World," the Mezquital Valley Otomi (and possibly other Otomi groups) allied with them against the Aztec in an attempt to free themselves from the empire (11). Though the Spanish did not prove the most reliable of allies, the Otomi survived colonial rule to play a role in several subsequent political and military struggles including the War of Independence (ibid.).
The Otomi Sold Textiles to Outsiders Starting in the 1960s
The art of textile weaving and design among the Otomi far predates its contact with colonial powers (12). However, Otomi textile designs did not become available as objects of decor until the 1960s. Before that time they did not exist on blankets or cushions. For centuries these designs were used only as decoration for women's blouses (13). It was not until a massive drought devastated crops in the area of Tenango de Doria that the Otomi first made their work available for sale outside of their community (ibid.).
Natural and Supernatural Forces Inspired Tenango Patterns
Translating to English as, "stone neighborhood," Tenango is home to several caves bearing drawings depicting animals as well as natural and supernatural forces. These images are believed to have inspired the motifs present on Otomi fabrics (14). Other influences may include a shamanistic practice involving paper made from cut tree bark called, "amate" (15).
Evolution of Otomi Patterns Since Modernization
Bringing Tenango patterns to a broader variety of home products first required a simplification of the design process and weaving method. Where creating the designs on garments required a complicated brocade method, modern Otomi designs are created using a much simpler form of needlework and a less labor-intensive process (16). Patterns are first drawn on cotton muslin in water soluble pen. Drawings may be purchased or outsourced by the weaver who may spend up to three months to produce a piece measuring as much as two square meters (21.5 square feet) (17). Since becoming fixtures of the modern decor market the color palettes and imagery of Otomi designs have become more diversified. Interestingly in this case modernization of Otomi designs has often meant reducing the number of colors in a given pattern (18).
Tradition Prevails Despite Modernization
Though their growing popularity across design and fashion has increased the visibility of Otomi fabrics and culture, the ancient practices that underly the traditional design method are in danger of dying out. Organizations such as the Mexican Indigenous Textiles Project (19) are working to ensure that these venerated traditions continue to be transmitted to future generations. While the work of this organization and others continues to preserve the traditional methods of Otomi textile embroidery, new styles and techniques continue to promote and support modern Otomi culture around the world.