Tag Archives: cultural tourism

Chiapas Boundaries, Borders and Cloth: Cultural Tourism

Long before the Spanish conquest of the Americas beginning with Mexico in 1521, Maya land was contiguous. Maya peoples spanned what we now know as Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

Can you identify the Eye of God, the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl, lightening and rain?

While spoken dialects differ, the language of cloth tells a similar and familiar story of the universe and creation: corn, stars, moon and sun, animals, fertility, and rain, the underworld and the heavens. The plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl is a predominant figure.

Ribbons are a contemporary adaptation of Aztec headdresses with feathers

The Aztecs, seeing the blond and bearded Hernan Cortes, confused him for the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl and welcomed him. Before that, their empire reached as far south as Nicaragua, where they hunted for the feathers to adorn royal headdresses. Their historical outposts are evident throughout Chiapas, mostly through Nahuatl place names.

Spanish territories in Mesoamerica were divided and governed from Mexico City (the Viceroyalty of New Spain). For more than 200 years, Antigua, Guatemala, served as the seat of the military governor of the Spanish colony of Guatemala, a large region that included almost all of present-day Central America and the southernmost State of Mexico: Chiapas.

Intricately woven daily huipil from Magdalena Aldama, Chiapas Highlands

Maya communities were contiguous until the Mexican Revolution, when geo-political boundaries were drawn separating Guatemala from Mexico. The Usamincinta River was the demarcation line.

All cotton huipil in new colors, an innovation, San Andres Larrainzar

Along this river are two very important archeological sites: Yaxchilan and Bonampak. Symbols from fresco paintings here are depicted in the cloth woven by Maya women across the borders. It is also the region of the Lancandon jungle, home to the Lancandon tribal group that speak an ancient form of Maya. They were able to escape Spanish conquest by staying hidden deep in the jungle.

Corn hangs to dry, Tenejapa

I write about this to better understand the context of the cloth, which has limited boundaries.

Traditional Tenejapa wool huipil with natural dyes

On our recent Chiapas Textile Study Tour, one of our travelers, Rosemary, told me she makes frequent visits to Guatemala to collect Maya huipiles. She said she always wondered why she had a hard time finding the huipiles from Colotenango and Huehuetenango in Antigua, until she came to San Cristobal.

French knots hand-embroidered, Aguacatenango, Chiapas

These Guatemala villages are much closer to Chiapas than they are to Antigua. She surmised that it was easier to export them here. We found many superb examples of Guatemala textiles mingled among those from Chiapas for this reason.

Pillow cover, San Andres Larrainzar

We asked the weavers we met on this journey what they dreamed of for themselves and their families. What do they want/need? What are their hopes for their children?

Sewing basket, Tenejapa, Chiapas

I ask our travelers to think of themselves as amateur cultural anthropologists: to ask questions and to understand what is most important for women, children, families, and their economic well-being.

On the loom, Tenejapa weaving, suspended from the ceiling at Na Bolom

Every artisan we talked with had a similar answer: they need markets to sell what they make. They want their children to have an education beyond sixth grade. They want them to keep the traditions alive, too. They want autonomy and independence from neo-colonialism and government control. They want to be respected for their creativity and traditions.

Seen on the street: Can I take a photo, please? I promise I won’t photo your face.

In other words, they want what we want for ourselves and our children — a life of safety, security and economic well-being, with health care and a just, living wage.

Exquisite machine-embroidered chal (shawl), San Lorenzo Zinacantan

Cultural Tourism: Why are we here?

Why are we here? Is the answer as simple as Cultural Tourism? Is our motivation to experience a world different from our own? We are lovers of the handmade and appreciators of the people who are the makers. We want to meet the makers directly and support them.

In the Academia.edu article What is Cultural Tourism? Greg Richards says, Another major cultural trend that has been important in the growth of the heritage industry has been the growth of nostalgia. The increasing pace of life and the feeling of disorientation and loss associated with modernity has ensured that the preservation of the past has become big business.

I am aware of this as we bring small groups into remote villages. I hope our footprint will be as small as possible. I hope we become observers with heart and empathy. I also want to talk about our tendency to romanticize what many visitors perceive as a simpler lifestyle.

We seem to yearn for a simpler lifestyle.

So, I ask the question of you: Is cooking over a smoky wood fire simpler if it means you or your children will develop emphysema? Is it simpler if you have to travel 20 miles to the nearest health care clinic? What if the school in your village doesn’t have a regular teacher and only goes to fourth grade? Is it a simpler lifestyle when your husband is an alcoholic and family violence is a reality, not a poster? Is it simpler when you find an hour or two a day to weave, after cooking, cleaning, tending children, husking corn, washing clothes?

Can we really know about people and their lives by interacting with them for a few hours and buying what they make? With this purchase, are we practicing cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation? By just being here, what is our impact on how people live and work? Will change happen? What is authentic, anyway?

These are our questions and our discoveries on the Chiapas Textile Study Tour. Would you like to come exploring with us?

Textile Travel Guide and Tips: How To Be a Cultural Ambassador

Cloth Roads just published a blog post called Textile Travel Guide: 10 Tips to Be a Star Textile Ambassador. 

This comes as a just-in-time-reminder for me about cultural sensitivity and travel to indigenous parts of the world where handmade textiles still flourish. My trip to India was bumped up a day, so I am on an airplane this Monday morning.

It also comes just-in-time for many of you who are attending the International Shibori Network Symposium in Oaxaca, Mexico.

travel-freemium-small

If you go to the Cloth Roads website, you can join the mailing list and download the guide for free.  It’s common sense and worth the reminder. Some of the tips are to prevent what I’ve seen on guided tours, where participants launch into grabbing and shopping before the local women have a chance to present themselves and their histories.

If you are traveling in 2017 to countries where amazing textiles are found, please take this guide with you.

If you are traveling to Mexico, please bring Textile Fiestas of Mexico by Sheri Brautigam. I contributed two chapters, one about the rugs of Teotitlan del Valle and the other about the rebozos of Tenancingo de Degollado.

As I embark for Delhi, Gujarat and Mumbai, I think about what it means to appreciate cloth and the people of India and the people of Oaxaca who cultivate the raw material, weave and dye, sew and fashion.

We have two spaces open for February 2-10, 2017.

Mexico Textiles & Folk Art Study Tour: Tenancingo Rebozos and More

 

 

Dilemma: Teotitlan del Valle Panteon (Cemetery)

There were six of us trailing Magdalena into the village panteon at 5:30 p.m. for the annual ritual of sitting at the grave site to pay respects to loved ones gone.  It was All Souls Day, November 2 in Teotitlan del Valle.  The ritual in the village is an ancient one, predating the Spanish conquest of 1521.  On November 2 the souls return to their graves for another year after having made a 24-hour visit that begins at 3 p.m. on November 1 and ending at 3 p.m. on November 2.  The church bells toll for 24-hours marking the time and in the bell-tower you can see the men who have volunteered from each section of the village to pull the heavy bell chord day and night.

Earlier in the day after breakfast we had taken bundles of flowers to the graves of Magda’s son and husband, putting them in urns filled with water to keep them fresh.  The tombs throughout the courtyard were covered with lilies, roses, and marigolds.  Freshly quartered oranges, pecans, and peanuts were set in neat little piles to feed the souls before the returned to the earth.  In the morning, the cemetery was quiet, reflective, reverent.  It was empty except for a few men who were cleaning the dirt paths between the graves and keeping the urns filled with water so the flowers would stay fresh.  We tip-toed gently to read the names of the dead on the elaborate crosses at the heads of each grave.  Why, we asked, were there so many crosses on each grave site?  Magda told us that a cross is put there when a person is first buried and then second one is added at the one-year anniversary when the family gathers for a memorial.  Each family may have  several plots in the cemetery, and after ten years a burial place can be re-used — a much different and more recycleable approach to burial than in the United States.  Ten years is about the time it takes for the body and bones to decompose; new earth is added and the cycle begins again.

As we entered the cemetery at 5:30 p.m. we saw a large tour group of about 15-20 people with very serious cameras and flash equipment strolling the cemetery.  They were part of a well-known U.S. organization that organizes adventure travel around the world in addition to publishing a monthly magazine that has been in existence for well over 100 years.  The people were boisterous, took photos without asking permission, and invaded the tranquil ritual sanctuary of this small village cemetery.  The use of flash was ubiquitous.  I noticed the photographers just a few feet away from elderly couples sitting at the grave sites, their camera lenses pointed directly in their subjects faces, holding flash strobes, and taking photos repeatedly to get the best shot.  They didn’t appear to have much awareness of their impact. We were uncomfortable.  Our own small group gathered and decided that there was not enough ambient light by that time (there were few candles in this cemetery as compared to Xoxocotlan) to allow us to take reasonable photos without using flash and being invasive.  So, we decided to leave after about a half hour.

We talked about this experience over dinner and then the next morning.  It seemed to all of us that the well-known travel company had not prepared people for the cultural experience of going into a small village environment.  It appeared that their approach was not as participants but as observers — there to capture an image and leave. We discussed the impact of being from the U.S. and how others’ behaviors from the same country can reflect on all of us.  Each tourist has a responsibility to behave respectfully so that as a group we will be welcomed back.  As Americans, it is easy for us to forget the historical experience of our indigenous hosts.  We must own our own part in the history of colonizers. Americans and Europeans must be aware of our impact as we travel.  The cemetery experience brought to light both the positive and negative aspects of what it means to participate in ancient rituals and the responsibilities that accompany that.  Fortunately, we had the opportunity to be sharing the home of a local family and were invited by them to go to the cemetery.  We were not convinced that the other group even engaged in any conversation in preparation for their visit.

If you have thoughts and ideas about this dilemma that you would like to share, please add to the commentary.  Thank you.

Discover the REAL Teotitlan del Valle

If you were to arrive in the village with a taxi driver or via tourist bus, you would have an entirely different experience than if you chose to travel independently.   On your own, you might do some research in advance to identify the weavers working with the best wool, using higher count warp threads and only natural dyes, which could take time and study.  Then, you would need to figure out how to get to Teotitlan del Valle —  on a public bus,  a shared collectivo taxi, or a taxi hired for transport only.  I am the first to admit, jumping on a tour bus could be convenient (although, I’ve never done it, I can certainly understand it) and saves some time.  But it will cost you an authentic experience.  

My friends Eric Chavez Santiago and Elsa Sanchez Diaz are both graduates of the tourism program at Universidad Anahuac de Oaxaca.  Eric is  a very accomplished weaver who lectures and demonstrates weaving and dyeing techniques at museums, universities and galleries in the U.S. and Elsa is a cultural liaison and interpreter.  Both have 10-year travel visas to the U.S.  They want to create real experiences for visitors to meet Teotitlan weavers who are committed to working only in natural dyes.  If you go to our website:  www.oaxacaculture.com we have an explanation about the importance of continuing the traditions of using natural dyes — for historic and cultural preservation and for health.  The toxic chemical dye vapors that indigenous weavers breathe is creating early onset lung disease, emphysema and some cancers.  So, there are important reasons to support weavers who work with natural dyes, beyond the aesthetics of a more beautiful rug.  If visitors can differentiate quality and only purchase rugs made with natural dyes, then  more people in the village will dye their wool this way.   Elsa and Eric have contacted weavers in the village who they know work ONLY with natural dyes and have asked them to be part of  a self-guided walking map of the village that the two are creating.  The map will include local spots of interest,  lodging and dining suggestions, and contact information. Travelers can contact Elsa to purchase the map.  If travelers desire, Elsa will  personally guide them, and provide round-trip transportation to and from the village from Oaxaca City.  The idea is to showcase the village from the perspective of those who live there, engaging in discussions about customs traditions and history with local experts, exploring the back alleys to meet weavers, or perhaps dining in the home of an accomplished cook. Elsa and Eric want to offer day visits, overnight stays, and residencies and workshops for artists, university students and teachers.  If you’d like more information about this, let me know, or contact Elsa Sanchez Diaz directly at email:  elsasanchezdiaz@gmail.com   In Oaxaca, call her at 01(951)51-43069.