Tag Archives: Magdalena Aldama

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

Chiapas Notebook: Magdalena Aldama Weavers

Our recent textile study tour took place over nine days. We were based in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, with so much to see and do, and no time to write!. I’m going to start now with one highlight that happened in the middle: a visit to Magdalena Aldama, Chiapas.

A few of our group with hosts Rosa and Cristobal, Magdalena Aldama

Some of us know this village, about two-and-a-half hours from San Cristobal, as Magdalenas. Others call it Aldama. It is one and the same. Officially, it is known as Santa Maria Magdalena.

Indigenous justice and liberty are elemental here, as is native Non-GMO corn.

It took on the name Aldama in 1934 in honor of Mexican insurgent Ignacio Aldama. This is a Tzotzil village strongly aligned with the Zapatistas.

Rosa with Barbara, and a neighboring Chenalho blue emboidered top

Not many foreigners show up here. Without an introduction to a family, it would be difficult to know where to go to see extraordinary back strap loom weaving and intricate embroidery that the women here are known for.

Susie admires a finely woven, embroidered huipil

We pulled up to the village zocalo and parked near the church. Cristobal was waiting for us and took us to his family home where his wife Rosa greeted us. She was joined by family members who were busy weaving and doing fine stitching, surrounded by children.

Children hover close to mom when strangers show up

This would not have been possible without our knowledgeable guide who arranged the visit through an anthropologist friend who has been working here for some time.

Every garment handmade: the woven cloth, fine embroidery, seams, hem

After demonstrations and a stunning expoventa of very fine work, the family invited us into their kitchen where they prepared Caldo de Gallina over a wood fire.

Work continues with babies bundled across backs with rebozos

They make the soup from organic free-range chicken and fresh local vegetables. The tortillas come hot off the comal. We toast the day with posh, the local fermented drink made from corn and sugar cane.

It is quite tasty!

Indigenous rights are fragile. People here take a stand for themselves. Viva Zapata!

Women work hard here, staying close to home. Tending babies, preparing meals, cleaning up, weaving, sewing. Extended families live together in the same household and next door.

Fifteen enjoying a family meal, altar with Mayan cross in background

I saw no young men and assume they were in the fields tending to vegetables or herds of cows. Or, perhaps they were in El Norte USA trying to make a few dollars to send home. At 20 pesos to 1 US dollar now, it’s an economic advantage to go north to work. Regardless of what Agent Orange says, families do not like to be separated. They do it out of necessity. 

A village Mayordomo came by to check us out and stayed for lunch

Since the village is not frequented by tourists, we had a social call by one of the village leaders, a mayordomo and friend of our host family. He saw that we were supportive of the cultural norms and stayed to talk and have lunch with us. We were not a rowdy group!

Waddle and daub traditional village construction, perfect backdrop

The large kitchen space where we had lunch, the traditional outbuilding where the expoventa (show/sale) was held, and some of the surrounding cottages, were all constructed with waddle and daub. This is different from adobe bricks. It is a great insulator, keeping the house warm in winter and cool in summer.

Yes, smoke gets in your eyes, clothes, hair and lungs in traditional kitchens

The only problem was the ventilation from the smoke, which rose to the ceiling in billows but didn’t escape readily from the open areas near the rafters. In some villages, NGOs are working with locals to create better vents so they don’t breathe the wood smoke and develop lung disease.

Britt wears an elegant dress, traditional in design

Magdalena Aldama is about ten minutes further from San Andres Larrainzar, another amazing weaving village, much larger than Magdalena. There seems to be some crossover in stitching and fashion, though for the most part women like to identify with where they are born and live by their costume.

Mom and toddler, infant sleeping behind

The finely woven mesh bags you see below are hand-woven from ixtle, the washed, pounded and softened fiber of the agave cactus leaf. The finer and smaller the bag, the more costly. The shoulder straps are soft leather. Sometimes they are finished with colorful woven edging. We love them and bought lots!

Display of blouses, bags, table runners, dresses, pillow covers

Often, the difficulty for western women is to find a garment large enough to fit us. The width here is as wide as the loom, but the arm holes and necklines can be small. So small, we can’t get the blouse over our heads or arms through the sleeves. Here, it wasn’t a problem! They knew we were coming!

Rosa holds up one her group’s fine blouses. They sold out!

On our way back to San Cristobal de las Casas, we made a quick stop in Larrainzar to check out the street scene.  On the way, we passed a family of sheep herders. While the animals grazed, the women tied their looms to the trees. No one here is idle.

Looms tied to trees. Always something to weave.

In San Andres Larrainzar, we stopped at a commercial cooperative outside of town. I was disappointed in the quality and offerings, though a few of us managed to find a treasure. It’s best to find a private group!

San Andres Larrainzar main street. Hard to find a huipil for sale here.

Local women buy the embroidered bodice pieces and then stitch their own cotton or poplin (cotton/poly blend) to make the complete blouse. They like the polyester because it dries much faster. So, it’s getting more difficult to find a pure cotton garment. The embroidered pieces cost 1,000 to 1,500 pesos before being made into the blouse.

Embroidered blouse pieces, Larrainzar. White area is for head opening.

Back in San Cristobal, I wore the Magdalena Aldama blouse I bought from Rosa and Cristobal on the following day. People stopped me. Where did you find that? I told them. I visited a local Mayan coop and the manager said, “We don’t carry anything that fine. It’s hard to find and too expensive.”  Well, not really. Not for us at the current exchange rate!

The weaving group in black and white.

Making a trip into the village to meet the family, share a meal and support their work was one of the highlights of this trip.

Weaving on the street, Magdalena Aldama

We are going to offer this again at the end of February 2018. Contact me if you are interested and I’ll put you on the list to let you know dates and cost. This study tour will be limited to 9 people maximum!

Games little boys play, in the doorway to the kitchen.