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