There is no better reality check to understand quality of life for Chiapas indigenous people than to travel the back roads into remote villages, where people live clinging precariously to mountain slopes. They get to their houses by walking narrow dirt trails, climbing up and down slippery paths sheltered by coffee plants, banana palms and an occasional pine tree.
Through the coffee forest, 16 flights of stairs on this trip.
This is a life of poverty. It is also rich in family connectedness, work for the common good, creativity and aspiration for economic well-being. This is hard-scrabble country with out-houses, planked wood dwellings, smokey cooking fires, bony dogs, and young children underfoot. Extended families live together.
The rebozo holds a three-year-old as mom climbs out of the coffee forest
Young women, some teenagers, some barely into their twenties, carry toddlers on their backs, constantly shifting the weight, re-tying the rebozos to keep the bundle secure. Moving the bundle from back to front as child fusses. Breast is close at hand more for soothing than nourishment.
Babes in arms, waiting for lunch
This was not a shopping day.
Huellas Que Trascienden introduces six of us to the people they work with as part of their economic-business development projects in the region. Their goal is to educate Maya women and men to become self-supporting. In San Cristobal de Las Casas they operate their foundation headquarters at Maria Adelina Flores #22 (at the corner of Colon). Here, they train weavers through a project called Artisan2You,to become more savvy with business, open bank accounts, run online stores and become independent.
Join us for the 2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. No rough rides!
Catalina making tortillas
Women earn the full amount of the textile sale at Artisan2You. They are individually recognized with a photo and their name on the clothing hang tags. The Huellas Que Trascienden takes no commission or mark-up. Finally, we know who made our clothes!
Leticia grilling the meat. Our visit warranted a feast.
I take the trip to meet Leticia and her family in a village where I’ve never been. Leticia wove a beautiful poncho for me, which I wear today in honor of her skill. She is twenty-seven years old with four children. She learned from her mother Catalina, a master weaver. Once she wanted to escape to the city. Now, her weaving brings recognition and self-esteem.
Me and Leticia’s poncho, with Lety (right), mom Catalina (second from right)
It’s almost two hours to Yochib in the Oxchuc district of Chiapas. After a stop in the Tenejapa market, we climb on switch-back roads, then descend into a warmer, more humid climate. The banana palms tell me we are close to the rainforest. All of us start to peel off the layers we are wearing. It’s a rough road with hairpin turns.
A prayer before lunch from Don Alonso
We pass courtyards where coffee beans are drying on plastic tarps. We pick up Pablo Santis who will translate for us from Tzeltal Maya to Spanish. I’m the only non-native Spanish speaker in the group and I’m far from fluent. I’m constantly attentive to be able to “get it.” The indigenous language is predominant here and few speak Spanish.
An amazing Yochib, Oxchuc huipil, ten years old (detail)
Off the van, we follow the trail by foot deep into the coffee groves, down, down. I think, OMG, I’m going to need to climb out of here! I clocked 16 flights of stairs by the end of the day. The altitude, I’m told, is 2,000 meters. That’s 6,562 feet.
Scrambled eggs in tomato chicken stock
At the end of the trail we meet Alonso Gomez Lopez and his family. It’s noon. We had left at 8:00 a.m. Lunch is served around a large square table. Grilled meat. Sliced cucumber. Scrambled egg in chicken soup. Hot, sweet coffee. But first, Don Alonso pulls out his bible and recites a prayer of Thanksgiving. During the meal he strums guitar and sings. It’s then I realize that the family is evangelical Christian, not traditional Catholic. He sits but doesn’t eat with us. He says he is fed by his faith.
Black bean turnovers complement the meal
In Chiapas, less than 65% of the population are traditional Catholics. Don Alonso is a minister in the Renewed Presbyterian Church. He asks me my religion and I tell him, adding I am happy with what I believe. I’ll see you up there, he says. I smile.
The Renewed Presbyterian Church, Yochib, Oxchuc, Chiapas
Our lunch feast around the community dining table.
Mauricio Raigosa, the founder of Huellas Que Trascienden, is from Monterrey and makes his home in Sancris. He is a chemical engineer with an M.B.A. from a French university. He started the project because he wants to leave a footprint for change, so people can transcend their lives, have access to opportunities, and receive a fair wage.
Hilaria weaving one length of cloth for a poncho.
It takes 30 hours to weave a poncho. Most women receive six pesos an hour for their work. With Huellas, they receive 30 pesos per hour. Mauricio says he wants customers to say: I love your product. I love the quality. I love the price. The retail price is about 30% less than competitors in downtown San Cristobal.
Detail of hand embroidery on Hilaria’s skirt
The women create their own designs. There are no outside designer influences here. They scan the marketplace and see what’s out there, adjust their styles according to what they see. These are the business practices Huellas Que Trascienden is teaching. Mauricio, age, 38, says he is more of a mentor/coach and not the guy in charge.
Tortilla stack at our second meal at the home of Hilaria
They are not a textile cooperative or organization. Women receive direct payment for what is sold.
Hilaria’s mom who has circulation problems and can’t walk
Huellas is working with Amantenango pottery makers, honey producers, coffee growers/roasters, and experimenting with making tea from the fruit of the coffee bean. They are entrepreneurs interested in capacity building and product commercialization. Support them, if you can.
Discarded coffee fruit; can it become antioxidant tea?
Thanks to staff member Tali Karszenbaum for her thoughtfulness, customer service, inspiration, and great work with Huellas Que Trascienden.
Textile Flower Bouquets of San Lorenzo Zinacantan, Chiapas
Zinacantan is about thirty minutes by taxi from the center of San Cristobal de Las Casas. They grow flowers here. Large greenhouses dominate the landscape like a checkerboard rising from the valley to the hillsides.
Flower growing Zinacantan garden embroidered on cloth
This is a prosperous community that exports this produce throughout Mexico, as far as Mexico City and Merida.
Toddler cradled in an embroidered rebozo carrier with scalloped chal
Local dress reflects this love of flowers. Women’s skirts and chals (shawls), men’s pants and ponchos, and rebozos to cradle babies are densely embroidered with flower motifs.
Machined cross-stitch embroidery. Can you tell the difference?
It used to be that this work was all done by hand. Now, the embroidery machine has taken over the life of the cloth, which is often completely covered in intricate flower motifs so dense you can hardly see the base fabric.
Family shop together on market day
It used to be that the base cloth was woven on a back strap loom. This is now rarely the case. Most is either woven on the treadle loom or by commercial machine.
Bling blouses–machine embroidered bodices on shiny synthetic cloth. Beautiful.
It used to be that the village was identified by its hot pink cloth. Now, we see purples and blues. It’s common to see shiny colored threads in both the woven cloth and the embroidery thread. Fashions change and the Zinacantecas innovate new designs, use new color variations, and new embroidery motifs.
Woman working her needle by hand on the street, a rarity
Far beyond Mexico City, Mexican women love their bling.
Sheri Brautigam and I went early to Zinacantan yesterday on a discovery trip to check out new places to take the next Chiapas Textile Study Tour group. Sunday is Zinacantan market day but you have to get there early. The women with textiles have spread out their wares on the street at 6:00 a.m. and start putting their things away by 10:30 a.m.
New designs this year, short scalloped collar shawl
Our best advice is go there first before Chamula.
My find of the day: hand embroidered chal, front and back
2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. Taking reservations now.
Wander the streets off the Zocalo. There are homes and stalls that sell good new and vintage textiles. The old pieces might be ten, fifteen or twenty years old. People stop wearing them because the colors are outdated not because the cloth is worn.
Costume is worn with cultural pride everyday
You can easily spend an hour here.
A rainbow of threads for embroidery machines in the market.
Here you will find hand embroidered cloth woven on back strap looms. This could include cross-stitch (punto de cruz) and French knots, in addition to other traditional needlework. How can you tell? Turn it over and look at the underside.
Meandering the streets we come across handmade leather shoes
The embroidery machine has come to Chiapas and can replicate cross-stitch and everything else. The village women now wear the work made by machine and it’s beautiful, too. Everything is a personal choice!
Market day goes on under the destruction of San Lorenzo Church
The obvious tragedy is the damage to the Church of San Lorenzo during the September 7, 2017, earthquake that rattled Chiapas and the southern Oaxaca coast. The destruction dominates the horizon. The church is closed until further notice by INAH. People say it may be impossible to repair. There is talk in the village about building another church.
Saints in temporary corrugated home. Photo by Carol Estes.
I remember entering the candlelit space in years past where all corners were adorned with flowers, abundant, fragrant. The altar was like a floral arrangement unlike any other I had seen. The aroma made me swoon. Now, the saints have been removed to a corrugated shed. INAH is responsible for all historic churches in Mexico. Few in and around San Cristobal de Las escaped damage. There is years of work to be done. Will Mexico have the will to repair?
September 2017 earthquake toppled houses, too.
Back on the street we find hand-woven and embroidered bags, silky polyester blouses machine embroidered with complementary colors, belt sashes and skirt fabric. Since it’s market day, tarps are also covered with piles of fruits and vegetables, and staples for the home.
1930s wedding, San Lorenzo Zinacantan
The Aztecs ruled this territory before the Spanish. They dominated as far south as Nicaragua. The Zinacantecos had strong links with the Aztecs, and enjoyed a privileged trading relationship. The village served as political/economic center for Aztec control of the region before the Spanish reached Chiapas in 1523. Our friend Patricio tells us that many locals intermarried with Nahuatl speaking Mexica’s.
The Zinacantan feathered wedding dress is a carry over from this past.
Leaving San Cristobal at 9:00 a.m. for Zinacantan
Taxi to get there, 150 pesos from San Cristobal de Las Casas. Taxi to return, 100 pesos. Get it at the back corner of the church before you enter the market street.
On our hotel street, end of day
It costs about 150 pesos to get there.
Posted in Clothing Design, Cultural Commentary, Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving
Tagged Chiapas, cloth, education, Embroidery, San Cristobal de las Casas, San Lorenzo Zinacantan, textiles, tour, travel, weaving