It is humbling to be here in the Chiapas highlands. Maya women are talented weavers. They create cloth that is rich in symbolism using the simple, ancient technology of the back strap loom. It can take three to four months to make a huipil with this method. This last day on the road, two hours up the winding, misty mountain road to Larrainzar and Aldama shows me once again how extraordinary talent comes from such humble living environments.
Families still cluster in small mountain villages. They live in concrete block houses with no heat or insulation. The government provides building subsidies and encourages people to move away from building with adobe or mud and daub, traditionally a much better insulator for cold and heat. Why? Because Mexico wants to show the world they are helping their poor.
Larrainzar is small. Aldama is even smaller. Some of the finest weavings in all of Chiapas are made in these two adjacent villages, which we visit.
Few speak Spanish. One or two, maybe. All are Tztozil speakers here.
We visit the family of Andrea and her daughter Victoria once again in San Andres Larrainzar. They are award winning weavers who welcome us after a two-year absence. Covid has had a huge negative impact on the informal economy here. People have had no visitors to appreciate and purchase their work.
Then, we travel another 30 minutes to the 4-pedal loom workshop of Jolob, where 80 men are employed on 40 looms to produce hand-woven cloth using a flying shuttle technique. This is more like a semi-automated factory where human labor take the place of machinery. This loom was developed in the 19th century industrial revolution and is commonplace in Mexico. The workshop produces home goods textiles for many U.S. designer brands. It gives us a great comparison to the slower process of the back strap loom.
When we arrive in Aldama at the home of Rosa Vasquez Gomez, she and I embrace. I haven’t seen her in two years. Her husband, Cristobal, was unjustly jailed during the land dispute between this village and neighboring Chenalho. Covid has slowed down the legal process to release him. We raised funds to help but more is needed. After a lunch of chicken soup, homemade tortillas, rice, squash and potatoes, we see what the women in the cooperative have made. I know that each purchase we make will help sustain the families here.
Rosa operated a cooperative in San Cristobal but she closed it. There were no visitors. Now they have no place to sell. We hear this as a repeated refrain.
Our final stop today is to meet Apolonia, Lucia, Martha and Mary, four talented sisters who have been recognized for weaving excellence by the Fundacion Banamex and the federal government. They consistently win top national awards. How, I ask, does such beauty come from such extreme poverty.
Tradition here runs deep. As with other villages we visit, women get their inspiration from the natural world and their spiritual beliefs. They help us pick out the stories in the cloth: frogs signal the coming of rain, essential for growing corn. We see diamonds and stars, representing the universe with its four cardinal points and light. Rows of planted corn, fruit orchards, worms and caterpillars, snakes and birds, all plotted out mathematically in the woven cloth, figure prominently. Designs are created using the supplementary weft technique. A four-selvedge textile with no fringe and no hem denotes the work of a master weaver. The cloth is not cut with a scissors!
Why are we here? To learn and to appreciate. We are also here to support artisans by purchasing directly what they make. In this way, we contribute toward sustaining the traditions — so important as mechanization takes over our world and indigenous traditions fade.