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

Carnival in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

The red flags fly from banners carried by men young and old. Their faces hidden with paisley scarves or animal masks. A dried ocelot skin hangs from a belt, connected to brass bells that jangle with each movement. Is this the man’s spirit animal? In the church courtyard there are troupes of celebrants on parade. Air is broken by the sound of cohetes, the firecrackers sent skyward to awaken the spirits.

Inside the church, groups of families, kneel, keen, sit cross-legged, light red, black, yellow, white candles representing the four cardinal points. Green is the symbol of earth. Fresh pine needles on the floor are swept aside. A shaman prays with them for the family to receive extra blessing.

No photos allowed or cameras of any type will be confiscated.

A church official carrying a smoking copal urn perfumes the air. The smoke trails him, raises toward the pitched church room, rafters adorned with ribbon. There are no pews. The air is dense, musky, a shroud. The light is like a Rembrandt painting.

Shuko is with me. She lives in Los Angeles with her family. She is originally from Japan and writes a blog, where she is sharing her experience of this day.

One of us asks, Is this Catholic? No, I say. It is syncretism. A blend of the mystical and divine, the spiritual and the ancient, the Catholic evangelization of Mexico. Who are they worshipping? he says. Mother earth, the thirteen levels, life and death, something soulful and unnamed, I say.

We sit in silence on sideline benches. Candle glow is the only light, other than from where the sun tries to enter the dark space where the roof meets the walls. This is a meditation.

Outside, bright sun illuminates Chamulan faces. They speak Ttotzil, one of the Mayan languages of the region. Men wear white and black woven and combed sheep ponchos. Women wrap themselves in woven furry black sheep skirts. The temperature is close to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot.

Beyond the church is the market on the zocalo. Today it is packed with fruit, vegetables, raw meats, belts, fabrics, Western and traditional clothing, cooking stalls, people packing through narrow helter-skelter aisles that can dead-end. Children cry. Babies suckle at bare breast. Amber vendors ply their wares.

The men on parade continue to process around the periphery, drink pox, blow ancient horns, beat drums, play flutes, strum guitars, connect with their identity.

We buy wool chals with pompoms, clay copal incense burners, avocados, woven bags adorned with embroidery, ceramic candleholders.

I am taking a list of those interested in going with me to Chiapas in 2020. Dates will be late February or early March. Let me know.

Out and About Oaxaca Family Newsletter

My son was here for a week and returned to Southern California yesterday morning. He arrive three days after my return from Michoacan. What did we do? By choice, not much. We took walks in the campo with the dogs. He came to my Artful Aprons of San Miguel del Valle talk, another sold-out event at the Oaxaca Lending Library.

Crushing roasted agave piña at Gracias a Dios, Santiago Matatlan

We hung out. Talked. Shared memories and regrets, philosophy and politics, hopes. We checked in with each other. We read and took naps on the terrace hammocks. One night, I lit a fire in the chiminea and a log jumped out onto the grass. He was the firefighter. I was contrite.

Espadin agave roasting pit, ready to load, ready in 4 days.

It’s been unseasonably hot here. Almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We moved slowly. We went mezcal tasting with Emmy Hernandez at Gracias a Dios in Santiago Matatlan, with a stop first to visit Arturo Hernandez in Mitla to buy a scarf for his girlfriend. A fact that gives me joy.

Mezcal tasting in Santiago Matatlan. Gee, he’s tall and/or I’m shrinking!

I grilled BBQ ribs. We ate out. We cooked in. We shared meals with our host family and friends. We are blessed to have each other. He gives me advice, which I appreciate. I am tender with mine. He doesn’t need much advice, either. Mostly, we call it feedback. Time together went quickly.

Tomorrow I leave for a full textile study tour in Chiapas, gone for 11 days. I’m not quite ready to leave the quiet of my casita in Teotitlan del Valle. And, my regret is there has been so little time this winter to have time with my friends here, many of whom are seasonal. They are getting ready to go back north and after Chiapas, I return to North Carolina for a while.

Shy Tia stuck by his side all week, nuzzling for pets.

I promise myself that next year will be different. That I will slow down and do less, have time to take classes, learn to embroider or crochet or make something I haven’t before. But, most importantly, to have more time to be with friends — here in Oaxaca and in Mexico, and various part of the USA. And, to be with my California family.

So, I’m rethinking the number of study tours I will offer in 2020, where they will be, when they will be, how long they will be. I’ll keep you posted.

Campo thoughts: Will the Chicago Cubs win the World Series?

Meanwhile, Susie and Bruce arrive this afternoon to move into the casita to care for the dogs while I’m in Chiapas. My suitcase is almost packed.

Feathered Plumage: Rebozos in Ahuiran, Michoacan

Grand Master of Mexican Folk Art Cecelia Bautista Caballero is recognized for her outstanding creativity and innovation. About 30 years ago she developed a weaving technique to re-introduce the feathered plumage of Purepecha royalty into the rebozos (shawls) she makes on the back-strap loom.

Our Michoacan study tour leads us to a humble home on a side street off the central plaza in the tiny village of San Mateo Ahuiran on the Purepecha Plateau. We want to meet, embrace and support this amazing, talented woman. We want to know her daughters who carry on the tradition.

Three thousand threads of fine cotton make up the warp of this back-strap loom. It can take two or three months to weave the cloth, then another two months to hand-knot the elaborate fringes called the punta.

Angeles Rodriguez Bautista, Cecelia’s daughter, demonstrates back-strap loom weaving

We want to explore a region whose DNA is thought to originate from Siberia, when the Bering Straits were a land bridge that brought people to the shores of North America.

Cecelia Bautista Caballero with Norma Schafer in Ahuiran

Cecelia Bautista Caballero is a living treasure. She enters the dimly lit room with a broad smile to welcome us. She is radiant. The light follows her. A rebozo is slung over her shoulder like a backpack. It bulges like a sack of avocados. She drops it’s weight onto a small, wood table and unwraps the folds to reveal a treasure trove of rebozos she has personally woven.

Donna, Linda, Winn modeling feather rebozos, with Angeles

Despite suffering a stroke that leaves its mark on the right side of her face, Cecelia is still productive. Weaving is her life’s work, her self-expression, her passion. With pride, she tells us how she created the feathered trim in the tradition of her ancestors, using turkey, rooster and bird feathers that are either natural or dyed with local plant tints.

Cecelia’s niece Bertha Estrada Huipe, with Carolyn who bought Bertha’s rebozo

One reason we gravitate to visiting small villages is for the satisfaction of meeting the maker and buying directly from them. We know their prices are fair and just. We know that what we buy will help them feed their families and reinvest in materials. There is something special in this exchange, more than a transaction of money for product. It is filled with appreciation and love.

Even more than this, the journey feels like a pilgrimage to pay personal homage to talented people. Sometimes this journey takes hours or days. We are like explorers, uncovering the past and investing in the future.

We traveled to Ahuiran from Uruapan, designated a Pueblo Magico for its outstanding national park Caputitzio, known for stunning waterfalls. This was our base for two nights as we explored the area after leaving the Monarch Butterfly sanctuaries.

This brought us closer to the indigenous town of Paracho, where we watched luthiers make guitars, violins, mandolins, and other string instruments. The main street is lined with craftsmen fulfilling special orders for musicians around the world.

Fragile, Glorious Monarch Butterflies in Michoacan, Mexico

We are in sacred space. Coming to Mineral de Angangueo is like making a pilgrimage. Here in the winter home of the Monarch Butterfly — Mariposa Monarca — these glorious insects hang in colonies like giant grape clusters, suspended from the branches of majestic Douglas fir trees. We are at 10,000 feet altitude. The height is dizzying. The spectacle even more so. A million wings beating that together sound like raindrops.

At the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve

I hear the heartbeat of Mother Nature. I hear the natural cycle of life. I feel the will to live. I see small, fragile, glorious golden insects that travel up to 3,000 miles to this sanctuary. This is a cycle repeated over thousands of years. From Canada to the United States to Mexico and back again.

This is a survival mission that depends on habitat and escape from natural predators. We are witness to life. It reminds me to be vigilant about conserving our resources. We are at the edge. Perhaps past it.

The orange you see are hundreds of butterfly wings.

Fear of Monarch Butterfly extinction because of milkweed extermination from insecticides. Yet, the population this year increased 144%. Why? It is a mystery. The Michoacan colonies were not discovered until the 1970’s, relatively recently.

Monarch butterflies drinking from a creek, Michoacan, Mexico

This is the year of the butterfly in Mexico. A local trail guide says there are between 900,000 and 120 million here. It is warm. Sunny. Perfect. The future is unpredictable.

Clustered colonies of butterflies, dark shadows against a pure blue sky

On the first day into butterfly territory, our group of ten women participating with me on our Michoacan Folk Art and Butterfly Study Tour enter the sanctuary at El Rosario. It is the largest and most easily accessible of those in the region. Our amazing, knowledgeable Patzcuaro guide, Jaime Hernandez Balderas of Animecha Tours, leads the way.

We ride horseback into remote Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Reserve
The Gang of Five Butterfly Navigators to Sierra Chincua: Cindy, Donna, Susan, Susie, Norma

On the second day, five of us (plus Jaime) continue on to Sierra Chincua, a smaller, more remote site, accessible only by horseback and foot. I hadn’t been on a horse since I rode in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, as a young teen. The adventure of butterfly discovery was heightened by the experience of riding down dusty, rocky slopes to where only few go.

Fallen Monarchs at trailside, taken by birds and mice

We wear masks to protect us from the dusty trail that leads down into the reserve where the butterfly colonies roost. The colonies can move. Huge, living organisms of beating wings in the tree-tops from January through March each year.

Deep into the Douglas Fir forest, a sacred sanctuary

Basic facts about Monarch Butterflies

Sierra Chincua is deep in the forest. Trees become a cathedral with sunlight filtering through fir needles. Here it is quieter. People are more reverential. The viewing site is small, room enough for perhaps twenty people. We look down the hillside and are at eye level with the clusters of the colonies. They look like large black sacks against the blue sky backdrop. I see distant volcanic mountains. Breathe deeply. Take it in. Want it to stay with me. This meditation on the extraordinary.

I pull out my binoculars and focus skyward. In the shadows of the clusters I see the veins of thousands, wings pulsing, undulating. I look to the light and see the miraculous orange wings. A wind comes up and the wings pulse in rapid succession. The trees move to bring in more sun. Insects take flight. It looks like a shimmering sea of gold.

I’d say this is a bucket list experience.

Me and Winn on horseback, preparing to ride to to the colonies

There is no telling what the future will bring for these creatures as global warming encroaches, as pollution impacts our environment, as chemicals destroy habitat.

We meet a local Angangueo woman along the trail who safeguards the path

The indigenous people of the region say that the butterflies are the souls of our loved ones. One of our travelers says that if you don’t believe in God, you will now. Regardless of religion or belief system, being here is transcendent, resplendent, reverent. It is a sanctuary where the spiritual envelops us. Each moment here offers hope for survival and continuity.

Donna emerges from photographing a butterfly

I want to recommend that you read Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, and that you read about the Monarch Butterfly migration from Mexico to the USA, then to Canada and back again.