Category Archives: Cultural Commentary

Textile Flower Bouquets of San Lorenzo Zinacantan, Chiapas

Zinacantan is about thirty minutes by taxi from the center of San Cristobal de Las Casas. They grow flowers here. Large greenhouses dominate the landscape like a checkerboard rising from the valley to the hillsides.

Flower growing Zinacantan garden embroidered on cloth

This is a prosperous community that exports this produce throughout Mexico, as far as Mexico City and Merida.

Toddler cradled in an embroidered rebozo carrier with scalloped chal

Local dress reflects this love of flowers. Women’s skirts and chals (shawls), men’s pants and ponchos, and rebozos to cradle babies are densely embroidered with flower motifs.

Machined cross-stitch embroidery. Can you tell the difference?

It used to be that this work was all done by hand. Now, the embroidery machine has taken over the life of the cloth, which is often completely covered in intricate flower motifs so dense you can hardly see the base fabric.

Family shop together on market day

It used to be that the base cloth was woven on a back strap loom. This is now rarely the case. Most is either woven on the treadle loom or by commercial machine.

Bling blouses–machine embroidered bodices on shiny synthetic cloth. Beautiful.

It used to be that the village was identified by its hot pink cloth. Now, we see purples and blues. It’s common to see shiny colored threads in both the woven cloth and the embroidery thread. Fashions change and the Zinacantecas innovate new designs, use new color variations, and new embroidery motifs.

Woman working her needle by hand on the street, a rarity

Far beyond Mexico City, Mexican women love their bling.

Sheri Brautigam and I went early to Zinacantan yesterday on a discovery trip to check out new places to take the next Chiapas Textile Study Tour group. Sunday is Zinacantan market day but you have to get there early. The women with textiles have spread out their wares on the street at 6:00 a.m. and start putting their things away by 10:30 a.m.

New designs this year, short scalloped collar shawl

Our best advice is go there first before Chamula.

My find of the day: hand embroidered chal, front and back

2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. Taking reservations now.

Wander the streets off the Zocalo. There are homes and stalls that sell good new and vintage textiles. The old pieces might be ten, fifteen or twenty years old. People stop wearing them because the colors are outdated not because the cloth is worn.

Costume is worn with cultural pride everyday

You can easily spend an hour here.

A rainbow of threads for embroidery machines in the market.

Here you will find hand embroidered cloth woven on back strap looms. This could include cross-stitch (punto de cruz) and French knots, in addition to other traditional needlework. How can you tell? Turn it over and look at the underside.

Meandering the streets we come across handmade leather shoes

The embroidery machine has come to Chiapas and can replicate cross-stitch and everything else. The village women now wear the work made by machine and it’s beautiful, too. Everything is a personal choice!

Market day goes on under the destruction of San Lorenzo Church

The obvious tragedy is the damage to the Church of San Lorenzo during the September 7, 2017, earthquake that rattled Chiapas and the southern Oaxaca coast. The destruction dominates the horizon. The church is closed until further notice by INAH. People say it may be impossible to repair. There is talk in the village about building another church.

Saints in temporary corrugated home. Photo by Carol Estes.

I remember entering the candlelit space in years past where all corners were adorned with flowers, abundant, fragrant. The altar was like a floral arrangement unlike any other I had seen. The aroma made me swoon. Now, the saints have been removed to a corrugated shed. INAH is responsible for all historic churches in Mexico. Few in and around San Cristobal de Las escaped damage. There is years of work to be done. Will Mexico have the will to repair?

September 2017 earthquake toppled houses, too.

Back on the street we find hand-woven and embroidered bags, silky polyester blouses machine embroidered with complementary colors, belt sashes and skirt fabric. Since it’s market day, tarps are also covered with piles of fruits and vegetables, and staples for the home.

1930s wedding, San Lorenzo Zinacantan

The Aztecs ruled this territory before the Spanish. They dominated as far south as Nicaragua. The Zinacantecos had strong links with the Aztecs, and enjoyed a privileged trading relationship. The village served as political/economic center for Aztec control of the region before the Spanish reached Chiapas in 1523. Our friend Patricio tells us that many locals intermarried with Nahuatl speaking Mexica’s.

The Zinacantan feathered wedding dress is a carry over from this past.

Leaving San Cristobal at 9:00 a.m. for Zinacantan

Taxi to get there, 150 pesos from San Cristobal de Las Casas.  Taxi to return, 100 pesos. Get it at the back corner of the church before you enter the market street.

On our hotel street, end of day

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It costs about 150 pesos to get there.

Bonus–Yochib, Oxchuc, Chiapas: Portrait of Young Girl with Dog

Oaxaca and Chiapas have a lot in common. They are the two poorest states in Mexico, have the lowest literacy rates and in the rural areas there is little or no access to health care.

Chiapas and Oaxaca have the highest percentage of indigenous people in Mexico, yet they are under-represented in politics and business, lack access to education.

Because of the rural character of each state, people are isolated and removed from the mainstream. They produce some of the most exquisite textiles in all of  Mexico.

For this entire time in Chiapas, I am using only my iPhone 8Plus with zoom lens. All the photos you’ve seen since February 12 are from my portable device with very little editing. I’m a devotee. Thinking of selling other equipment!

Thank you for following this adventure. There is more to come. Our Chiapas Textile Study Tour Group 2 starts this coming Tuesday evening.

Join us for 2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour, February 27-March 8

Traveling with Huellas Que Trascienden to Yochib, Oxchuc, Chiapas

There is no better reality check to understand quality of life for Chiapas indigenous people than to travel the back roads into remote villages, where people live clinging precariously to mountain slopes. They get to their houses by walking narrow dirt trails, climbing up and down slippery paths sheltered by coffee plants, banana palms and an occasional pine tree.

Through the coffee forest, 16 flights of stairs on this trip.

This is a life of poverty. It is also rich in family connectedness, work for the common good, creativity and aspiration for economic well-being. This is hard-scrabble country with out-houses, planked wood dwellings, smokey cooking fires, bony dogs, and young children underfoot. Extended families live together.

The rebozo holds a three-year-old as mom climbs out of the coffee forest

Young women, some teenagers, some barely into their twenties, carry toddlers on their backs, constantly shifting the weight, re-tying the rebozos to keep the bundle secure. Moving the bundle from back to front as child fusses. Breast is close at hand more for soothing than nourishment.

Babes in arms, waiting for lunch

This was not a shopping day.

Huellas Que Trascienden introduces six of us to the people they work with as part of their economic-business development projects in the region. Their goal is to educate Maya women and men to become self-supporting. In San Cristobal de Las Casas they operate their foundation headquarters at Maria Adelina Flores #22 (at the corner of Colon). Here, they train weavers through a project called Artisan2You,to become more savvy with business, open bank accounts, run online stores and become independent.

Join us for the 2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. No rough rides!

Catalina making tortillas

Women earn the full amount of the textile sale at Artisan2You. They are individually recognized with a photo and their name on the clothing hang tags. The Huellas Que Trascienden takes no commission or mark-up. Finally, we know who made our clothes!

Leticia grilling the meat. Our visit warranted a feast.

I take the trip to meet Leticia and her family in a village where I’ve never been. Leticia wove a beautiful poncho for me, which I wear today in honor of her skill. She is twenty-seven years old with four children. She learned from her mother Catalina, a master weaver. Once she wanted to escape to the city. Now, her weaving brings recognition and self-esteem.

Me and Leticia’s poncho, with Lety (right), mom Catalina (second from right)

It’s almost two hours to Yochib in the Oxchuc district of Chiapas. After a stop in the Tenejapa market, we climb on switch-back roads, then descend into a warmer, more humid climate. The banana palms tell me we are close to the rainforest. All of us start to peel off the layers we are wearing. It’s a rough road with hairpin turns.

A prayer before lunch from Don Alonso

We pass courtyards where coffee beans are drying on plastic tarps. We pick up Pablo Santis who will translate for us from Tzeltal Maya to Spanish. I’m the only non-native Spanish speaker in the group and I’m far from fluent. I’m constantly attentive to be able to “get it.”  The indigenous language is predominant here and few speak Spanish.

An amazing Yochib, Oxchuc huipil, ten years old (detail)

Off the van, we follow the trail by foot deep into the coffee groves, down, down. I think, OMG, I’m going to need to climb out of here! I clocked 16 flights of stairs by the end of the day. The altitude, I’m told, is 2,000 meters. That’s 6,562 feet.

Scrambled eggs in tomato chicken stock

At the end of the trail we meet Alonso Gomez Lopez and his family. It’s noon. We had left at 8:00 a.m. Lunch is served around a large square table. Grilled meat. Sliced cucumber. Scrambled egg in chicken soup. Hot, sweet coffee. But first, Don Alonso pulls out his bible and recites a prayer of Thanksgiving. During the meal he strums guitar and sings. It’s then I realize that the family is evangelical Christian, not traditional Catholic. He sits but doesn’t eat with us. He says he is fed by his faith.

Black bean turnovers complement the meal

In Chiapas, less than 65% of the population are traditional Catholics.  Don Alonso is a minister in the Renewed Presbyterian Church. He asks me my religion and I tell him, adding I am happy with what I believe. I’ll see you up there, he says. I smile.

The Renewed Presbyterian Church, Yochib, Oxchuc, Chiapas

Our lunch feast around the community dining table.

Mauricio Raigosa, the founder of Huellas Que Trascienden, is from Monterrey and makes his home in Sancris. He is a chemical engineer with an M.B.A. from a French university. He started the project because he wants to leave a footprint for change, so people can transcend their lives, have access to opportunities, and receive a fair wage.

Hilaria weaving one length of cloth for a poncho.

It takes 30 hours to weave a poncho. Most women receive six pesos an hour for their work. With Huellas, they receive 30 pesos per hour. Mauricio says he wants customers to say:  I love your product. I love the quality. I love the price. The retail price is about 30% less than competitors in downtown San Cristobal.

Detail of hand embroidery on Hilaria’s skirt

The women create their own designs. There are no outside designer influences here. They scan the marketplace and see what’s out there, adjust their styles according to what they see. These are the business practices Huellas Que Trascienden is teaching. Mauricio, age, 38, says he is more of a mentor/coach and not the guy in charge.

Tortilla stack at our second meal at the home of Hilaria

They are not a textile cooperative or organization. Women receive direct payment for what is sold.

Hilaria’s mom who has circulation problems and can’t walk

Huellas is working with Amantenango pottery makers, honey producers, coffee growers/roasters, and experimenting with making tea from the fruit of the coffee bean. They are entrepreneurs interested in capacity building and product commercialization. Support them, if you can.

Discarded coffee fruit; can it become antioxidant tea?

Thanks to staff member Tali Karszenbaum for her thoughtfulness, customer service, inspiration, and great work with Huellas Que Trascienden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cultural Meaning in Magdalenas Aldama: Chiapas Textile Study Tour

Magdalenas Aldama is an hour-and-a-half from San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, on a winding road deep into the mountains beyond San Juan Chamula. Its isolation is protection from the forces of modernization. The Spanish had difficulty getting there to evangelize. Traditions run deep and strong.

Rosa, center, wearing neighboring Chenalho dog paw embroidered blusa

Being remote is a double-edge sword. It guarantees lack of access to education and decent health care. It ensures sustaining traditional practices like building with wattle and daub, creating garments with the back strap loom.

Welcome to Magdalenas Aldama, where liquor is not permitted, per Zapatista custom

This is the same story for many villages tucked into the swales of eight thousand foot mountains around the city.

Close-up textile texture of supplementary weft on back strap loom

On our quest to explore the textiles of the Maya people surrounding San Cristobal de Las Casas, it is important to meet and know the people where they live and work. This is a cultural journey to appreciate artisania, to give support and to put funds directly into the hands of the makers.

Women at the Magdalenas expoventa, photo by Carol Estes

Magdalenas Aldama women weave some of the most beautiful blouses and huipiles in Chiapas. They are intricate textiles with ancient pre-Hispanic Maya symbols that have spiritual and physical meaning. It can take six to eight months to weave a traditional Gala Huipil used for special occasions.

A ceremonial Gala Huipil, cost is 3500 pesos, 8 months to make

Typical Maya symbols incorporated into the cloth — a story of life:

  • The milpa — corn fields, squash and beans
  • The sacred forest — pine trees
  • The Four Cardinal Points — sun, moon, earth and sky
  • The Toad — harbinger of the rainy season
  • The Vision Serpent  — to guide the way
  • Plus any personal designs preferred by the weaver

The making of cloth on a back strap loom, Magdalenas

During our van ride we talk about what to look for in a quality garment as we approach Magdalenas. We are sewers, embroiderers, collectors, knitters, appreciators of the creative work that women do.

  • How are the seams finished? Are the seams raw and unraveling?
  • Is the embroidery done on cloth that is made on a back strap loom or is it done on cheap commercial polyester or a poly/cotton blend?
  • Are the embroidery stitches small, tight, evenly executed?
  • Is the weaving even and are the supplementary weft threads densely packed?


First stop is to the home of Rosa and Cristobal. They were activists in the Zapatista movement, working for land reform, indigenous rights, access to services, and justice for Maya people. Twelve women in the extended family gathered in the smokey kitchen to prepare our lunch: handmade tortillas, sopa de gallina (free range chicken soup).

Mary Anne enjoys sopa de gallina chicken soup, a rich broth

Babies are tied to their backs with rebozos. Toddlers and youngsters played around their mothers’ skirts. The wood fire was pungeant, smokey, making it difficult to see or breathe.

The best corn tortillas, organic, criollo

After an expoventa in the adjacent barn, we went to the plank wood house of Don Pedro and his son Salvador, just a few blocks away to see their fine handwoven ixtle bags. Women in the family brought traditional Magdalenas huipiles and blusas, woven pocket bags, belts and embroidered skirt fabric.

Young nursing mother waits for a sale

Over breakfast this morning we share our impressions of the experience.

Don Pedro’s wife, wearing traditional huipil (blouse) and falda (skirt)

  • Lanita commented that this is a culture where back strap looms are everywhere. Women can do it a bit at a time, between caring for children, cooking, tending the kitchen garden, after chores are done.

Tortilla making by hand, a woman’s fingerprints in dough

  • Carol appreciates that joy is possible in any circumstance. We see the power of a community of women, and as women travelers, we, too, become a community of women. We made connections. There are ore things that make up the same among us that make us different. 

Children entertaining themselves. No television here.

  • Mary Anne notes that she learned more about the social justice issues of the Zapatistas. They are not a bunch of rebel revolutionaries.

Woman against adobe wall, photo by Carol Estes

  • Cath says that this trip is more than about textiles, although this is a good place to start. To be here is to look beyond the fibers, to look at the totality of life and ask, Where did this cloth come from? Who made it? What does it mean? Where is the woman who designed it?

Norma examining weaving detail, photo by Carol Estes

Textiles are a way into being part of another culture. We could dig in, experience, open up to what else it is we can see and discover. We were excited to find cooperatives where innovative design uses traditional fabric woven on the back strap loom.

Weaving is a way of life, while tending the flock and children

Most importantly, we provided direct support to women, men and families whose work we appreciate, admire and regard with respect.

Don Pedro and son Salvador weave the finest ixtle bags, photo by Carol Estes

Portrait of Patricio, who shows us the way, nephew of Tatik Samuel Ruiz

Chiapas Textile Study Tour Snapshot: If It’s Sunday, It Must Be Chamula and Zinacantan

San Juan Chamula was our first stop on Sunday, the big market day in the Tzotzil speaking Maya village located about thirty minutes outside of San Cristobal de Las Casas. This also happened to be a day for baptisms.

The Maya church at San Juan Chamula, no longer Catholic

As we arrived at the Chamula church, extended families were emerging. Children of all ages were dressed in white. A Catholic priest comes once a month to perform the rites, but other than this observance there is little resemblance to traditional Catholicism.

Family outside the church poses for post-baptism photo

Chamulans practice a pre-Hispanic mysticism inside the church. No photos are allowed. The space  magical. It is dark inside. Votive candles that sit atop at least twenty wooden tables illuminate the space. On the tile floor fresh pine needles replicate the sacred forest.  There are no pews.

Join us for 2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour

In the Chamula market, how women transport babies

Areas of needles are swept away. Worshipers light red, green, white and yellow candles and affix them with dripping wax to the floor. The colors represent the four cardinal points. They kneel and pray, singing in ancient Tzotzil.

Women wait for weekly government food stipend

Cynthia and Gail shopping for agave fiber woven bags, called ixtle

Sometimes a Shaman will go with the families, holding a live chicken. The Shaman will hold the fowl by its legs, wings outspread, then wring the chicken’s neck. In this way, the ill that is disturbing a family member will pass to the chicken. Then, the chicken is buried and the ailment will go away.

The cemetery is another spiritual center for Maya families

This stuffed fox may be someone’s spirit animal, used in ritual cleansings

Ancient beliefs run deep here. We tiptoe across the pine needles. The officials watch carefully to make sure we take no photographs. We are respectful and don’t try. Stories of confiscated cameras are rampant.

Post-Baptism celebration in the church courtyard

Ducks and a turkey for sale along a hidden market side street

Out on the church patio, the families who celebrated baptism gather along the periphery for a meal, music and refreshment. Cases of beer sit atop tables. Visitors are here from all over the world. I hear German, French and Dutch.

Vendors sell fresh fruit and vegetables

Beyond the church is the vast market where vendors sell everything from fresh fruit, vegetables and handcrafts.

Chickens for sale along a side alley — food or sacrifice?

Join us for 2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour

Village mayordomos are distinguished by furry white tunics

After a walkabout, we set out for neighboring San Lorenzo Zinacantan. This is a flower growing village. Once allies of the Aztecs, whose empire extended as far south as Nicaragua, Zinacantan enjoyed special privileges as an embassy. Mayas married with Nahuatl speakers and adopted the Aztec practice of incorporating feathers into wedding dresses.

Zinacantan women doing business in a doorway

After the September 2017 earthquake that destroyed the church roof and bell tower, it seems like tourism has dropped here. We hoped for a more robust market, but only a few vendors line the street surrounding the church. We were able to find textiles in a local shop that deals in new and vintage blouses, dresses and skirts.

Zinacantan embroidered chals, a floral display on cloth, photo by Carol Estes

Visitors from Mexico City model the local costume that they bought

Earthquake destroyed church roof, bell tower, walls crumbled

Hundreds of historic churches in southern Mexico were damaged in the 2017 earthquake. Under the purview of INAH, it’s not likely church repairs will take place any time soon. Fear is that neglect will destroy them.

Saints inside corregated metal make-shift church — oops, no photos!

Now, for a brief fresh-off-the-comal tortillas stop to stave off hunger. We entered a smoke-filled room where a young woman prepared masa, patted it, pressed it and cooked it on the comal. We filled the hot, steaming tortilla with fresh beans, ground pepitas (pumpkin seeds), tangy Chiapas cheese, avocado and smoked sausage.

Another view of the traditional kitchen.

Sausages hang over the smokey area to cure and take on flavor.

Preparing fresh, organic tortillas on the comal

Cynthia and Lanita sit back after our hearty snack

We returned to San Cristobal de Las Casas late in the afternoon where we enjoyed lunch at Tierra Adentro, the Zapatista cafe on Real Guadalupe. Another culturally stimulating day!

Pattern on black fabric for embroidering

On the way out of town, San Lorenzo Zinacantan — waddle and daub, tile