They speak Tzotzil here in the Maya highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. San Lorenzo Zinacantan is a village nestled in a beautiful valley about thirty minutes from San San Cristobal de Las Casas. It is a popular Sunday tourist destination combined with a visit to the mystical church at San Juan Chamula (which I will write about in another post), just ten minutes apart.
Zinacantan people yielded to the Spanish during the conquest. They enjoyed more favors and received fertile land in exchange for their loyalty. Today, the Zinacantan hillside is dotted with greenhouses where flowers grow in abundance to decorate church and home altars, and are a key part of festivals.
The village replicates these flowers in their embroidery that embellish cloth created on back strap looms. Over the years we have seen the patterns change from simple red and white striped cloth to sparkly textiles that incorporate synthetic glitzy threads of gold and silver. Much of the embroidery is now machine stitched, though the designs are guided by expert hands.
I’ve been coming to San Cristobal de Las Casas for years searching for a chal embroidered by hand to no avail. This time, Patrick, our guide took us to the home of Antonia, one of Zinacantan’s most accomplished weavers and embroiderers. Among the hundred chals (shawl or tzute) available for purchase, I found a blue one all hand embroidered. Technology is winning out over the made by hand ethos.
Identity is defined externally by the indigenous garment. Some say the Spanish imposed this upon local people in order to know where they came from and to keep them in their place. Others say the design of the garment endures because of cultural pride. The young woman above is from the village of Chenalho. I can tell because of the design of her beautiful huipil.
She is the tortilla maker at Antonia’s home, who keeps the fire going, makes us a fresh quesadilla of local cheese, cured chorizo, avocado and homemade salsa to remember the visit. Food is memory, too.
Nothing is wasted, not even the smoke. It curls up from the comal to cure the meats that hang above it. The corn is criollo, locally grown and ground by hand, pure and wholesome. Here in the shadowy adobe kitchen there is magic.
It is impossible to take photographs inside the church at Zinacantan. It is forbidden and cameras can be confiscated if you are found to violate this. Can you imagine a church altar spilling over with flowers from ceiling to floor, fresh, with an aroma of lilies, roses, gardenias and lilacs. The swirl of scent is like an infusion of incense, designed perhaps to bring one closer to god.
I organized this art and archeology study tour for Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. If you have a small group interested in coming to Oaxaca or Chiapas, please contact me. I have over 35 years experience organizing award-winning educational programs for some of America’s most respected universities.