Far and Away: Maya Weaving Village Magdalena Aldama

The locals call it Aldama, preferring to honor the 1810 Mexican Revolutionary War hero Juan Aldama, rather than the saint name imposed by Spanish conquerors. They are revolutionaries themselves here with most of the village sympathizing with the Zapatista movement.

Zapatista meeting house, Aldama

They are also extraordinary weavers of traditional huipiles and finely woven agave bags. The largest and finest bags take three months to make. The gala, celebratory fiesta huipil, made on the backstrap loom using supplementary weft technique to create the designs, can take eight months to weave.

Gala huipil from Magdalena Aldama, a heavy brocade woven on the back strap loom

I’m taking our Chiapas Textile Tour travelers on an adventure. As we climb the winding mountain road, we pass through Chamula territory where women are wearing the traditional wooly black skirts and men sport wooly white tunics and white hats. At the Y in the road we divert left. To continue right would take us to Chenalho and Chalchihuitan.

It takes Francisco three months to weave one agave fiber bag

As we climb, the mist thickens and droplets cover the windshield of our van. We are covered as if by a shroud. This is territory where wool and heavily woven cotton offer protection from the chill.

Children receive a ninth grade education, become weavers and farmers

In Aldama, women become weaving masters by age twelve. Their designs are mathematic. They count the warp threads. Dream their designs. Wrestle with design problems as they sleep. Wrestle with angels. The designs talk to them through Santa Marta, Magdalena and Maria.

This is a densely woven, cotton blouse used for daily wear

The patterns that emerge are magical and surrealistic. Lady Xoc appears as a figure hidden in cloth, transferred from the frescoes at Yaxchilan. You see her symbol in the cloth of the three villages — San Andres Larrainzar, Aldama, and Santa Marta. Triangles represent the universe. Frogs symbolize the coming of rain. The diamond contains a sacred sense of location. Put your head through the opening of the huipil and the wearer is at the center of the universe.

The symbol of the sunrise is a syncretic symbol of the birth of Jesus. Corn plants tell us the story of the dry season and also of fertility. Indigenous cultures depend on rain and sun to grown corn, squash and beans. To survive and thrive.

Our hosts, Rosa and Cristobal in Aldama

The textiles tell us this.

Other symbols are incorporated in the work we see: rabbit tracks and dog paws, foxes and butterflies. Clothing is part of the natural world.

Obscure light in cooking area. Photo by Mike Schroeder.

With the conquest, Dominican priests isolated each town, forcing them to dress in a way that would control their identity and their freedom of movement. We learn this from the cultural anthropologist I engage to travel with us. We learn that dress is part of cultural identity and carries with it political control.

In some villages, like in Zinacantan, we find out the colors and designs can change regularly — more associated with fashion trends than with anything else. There is pride now in what people make and wear to distinguish themselves.

Festival hat, handwoven bands sewn together, nine months to make

However, young people are moving toward blue jeans and T-shirts. Women are the culture keepers. Men leave their villages to find seasonal work elsewhere, adapting their dress to the dominant culture.

In Magdalena Aldama, there is a strong desire to keep the traditions and pass them along to the children. We saw ten year old girls weaving and embroidering along with their mothers, aunts and cousins.

Ancient guava tree, just leafing out. Photo by Mike Schroeder.

After being treated to a show and sale of their family’s work, Rosa and Cristobal invite us into their wattle and daub (mud and stick) house to sit down for lunch. There are seventeen of us. We are served delicious organic free range chicken soup, rice and steamed vegetables.

The hill town, San Cristobal de Las Casas

The kitchen-dining area is open hearth. Wood smoke fills the air. The fire heats a huge cauldron of broth and chicken pieces. It has been cooking for days and is fork tender. Toddlers run underfoot or are slung around the backs of their mothers, held tight by a handwoven rebozo. Our eyes water. Our mouths water. Cristobal brings out the pox and we sip the corn-sugar cane distilled beverage. It reminds me of mezcal.

Sunset in front of the cathedral

I am grateful for the women and men who traveled with me. They were generous of heart, spirit and resources. They understood that when then made a purchase, they give support to culture, tradition and the continuation of indigenous cloth.

Registration for the 2020 Chiapas Textile Study Tour will open soon. Dates will be February 25 to March 4. If you are interested, please send me an email: norma.schafer@icloud.com

6 responses to “Far and Away: Maya Weaving Village Magdalena Aldama

  1. Loving living vicariously through your writing as you travel Chiapas Norma. Wonderful as usual.

  2. Marsha & i definitely want to 2020 next year. Put us in the list.

  3. Wonderful post! I learned a lot & got a real sense of the people there. Thank you so much.

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