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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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