Tag Archives: Chenalho

In San Pedro Chenalho, Chiapas, Women Unite By Weaving

In March 2022, I had the good fortune to meet the weavers of the Maya cooperative Tsobol Antsetik (Women United) where they live and work in the township of Chixilton, Chenalho, Chiapas, on International Women’s Day. The group was formed over two decades ago and has 25 members. They use the back strap loom to weave for personal use and to sell, when they can. This is so important because without this work to sustain their life on ancestral lands, they would be forced to migrate to other parts of Mexico or the USA for employment. Besides weaving, they help husbands and sons to grow corn and beans and coffee.

I went through the auspices of Weaving for Justice, a Las Cruces, New Mexico not-for-profit founded by Christine Eber, Ph.D., an anthropologist who teaches at New Mexico State University. This is an organization that knows no boundaries. Members are from throughout the USA, Canada and worldwide. Flora Graham and Sheryl Williams, both members, who were participants on our Chiapas Textile Tour, arranged the visit.

To get there is easy … and not. Chenalho is a mountain town about an hour from the hustle bustle of San Cristobal del las Casas. We find the designated colectivo taxi garage on a commercial street beyond Santo Domingo Church, deep in the indigenous market that encompasses many city blocks. The streets are packed with tianguis, the temporary tents where informal vendors sell fruit, vegetables, housewares, brassieres, infant clothing, and occasional handcrafts. After paying the fare of 200 pesos for five of us, we make out way out of the valley and up the winding road.

Curves and switchbacks take us through terraced fields where spring corn has not yet been planted. on one side of the road, fern-filled rock walls send forth rivulets of water cascading down the hill. On the other side, a sheer drop off gives us views of lush green fields where giant round winter squash are ready for harvest. Sheep, goats and cows graze. Bromeliads cling to tree branches. A curl of smoke in the distance is either from a field being cleared (slash and burn agriculture) or a cooking fire. Humble wood dwellings dot the landscape. As we get closer to town, we begin to see women wearing their traje (indigenous garments) as they sweep porches or tend to children and livestock. A lonely painted wood road sign offers gasoline for sale at the neighborhood convenience store around the bend.

I’ve always admired the back-strap loomed striped cotton cloth of Chenalho, typically embroidered or woven using the supplementary weft technique on the bodice with symbols central to life on the highlands, central to dreams and mythologies: stars, a crescent moon, corn stalks, field furrows, strawberries, turtles, butterflies, hearts, spiders, grapes, dog paws, the heads of caterpillars and fish bones. A design called five spines is most emblematic of the village.

Years ago, during my first visit to Chiapas, I found this incredible weaving and embroidery in the artisan market in front of Santo Domingo Church. Today, there are few pieces to be found. It’s been a dream to go to the village, but I never managed it until March 2022. Here, I found a creative, dedicated and energetic group of women of all ages, dedicated to preserving their textile traditions.

Christine Eber writes, “Since the 1990’s, young women have been inventing new designs that include animals, insects, plants and fruits. They embroider these designs on their blouses and some put them on their skirts.” As time progressed, more shiny, synthetic threads were incorporated into the embroidery in addition to cotton. As these threads became more available, there was a move away from using wool which produced a bulky embroidery that wasn’t as fine.

We are adding a visit to Chenalho on our 2023 Chiapas Textile Tour. There are four spaces open. Come with us for a textile adventure of a lifetime!

Our tours are always off-the-beaten path, exploring the best textiles, meeting with makers.

Weaving for Justice provides support through Sophie’s Circle, the 501(C)3 that accepts tax-deductible donations and offers books and clothing for sale to support the women and their families.

Our tours are aligned with Weaving for Justice values: We ensure that producers receive fair prices and their values, goals and needs guide the fair trade process. We never bargain. It takes hours and months to make these garments. We support providing equal employment opportunities for all people, particularly the most disadvantaged. By bringing visitors to remote villages, we offer opportunities for creativity and individual recognition. We support providing healthy and safe working conditions within the local context. We respect cultural traditions, do not judge another way of life nor compare it to our own. We value reciprocity and respect. We have been bringing groups of textile lovers to Chiapas for many years and we are committed to building long-term relationships, to autonomy and human rights.

Interlude: Winding Road to Chenalho, Chiapas

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we traveled to Chenalho with a cake in hand. Or rather, protected from spilling by putting it on the lap of one of our traveling companions! Our adventure took us deep into Tzotzil territory via collectivo taxi, up a winding mountain road to the town of Chenalho. It’s a 45-minute trip on the switchback road, depending on the driver. We started out at the collectivo parking area beyond the market behind Santo Domingo de Guzman Church and we were soon out of the bustling commercial center making our ascent. The scenes are breathtaking. Steep valleys punctuated with terraced corn fields, grazing sheep, houses perched on stilts. We are surrounded by jagged peaks dense with pine forest.

We went about three miles beyond the town center on a secondary road to find what we were looking for. Here women weave and embellish their back strap loomed cloth with unusual raised embroidery that many call Dog Paw. I was a tag along, going with Sheryl and Flora, Carol and Peter, who were ambassadors for the Las Cruces, NM based NGO Weaving for Justice founded by anthropologist Christine Eber. We set out to meet the 30 cooperative members of Tsobol Antzetik, that means Women United in Tzotzil. We said Kolaval and Kolavalik (thank you, both singular and plural) a lot today.

This was another extraordinary day in the highlands for me. This was my first visit to Chenalho although I’ve admired their weaving and needlework skills for quite a while. When we arrived, the babies looked at me, white face with white hair, and cried. It reminded me of the time I went to a remote part of Chengdu, China in the 1990’s when children ran to hide behind their mothers in terror at seeing a foreign face!

Chenalho has not been on our tour itinerary, but I’m going to change that for 2023! Want to come to Chiapas to discover textiles with us? Send me an email to tell me you are interested.

We seized the opportunity to celebrate International Women’s Day because the founder of this cooperative, Flor de Margarita Perez Perez, wrote a song for the 1997 celebration that recognized the struggles of women in Chenalho. This was part of the Oventic meeting of the Zapatista movement for indigenous rights — where a cultural, educational and social center for the Zapatista supporters in the Highlands was established.

Selected stanzas:

We will not surrender. We will continue going forward, asking for justice, men, women and children.

We are not cowards, not like the government. The government feels strong because it has guns, tanks and airplanes. The government ignores the suffering of the people holding hands to protect peace.

These are their stories:

  1. She has one child and weaves to provide for him, pay school expenses.
  2. She weaves to help her 3 children. 
  3. She works to help her daughters. She doesn’t receive help from the government. 
  4. she helps to support her children. During the pandemic, she was not able to sell. Thanks for buying our few things. 
  5. She has 4 children. She weaves and embroiders. 
  6. She makes shawls scarves and shawls and napkins. Appreciates women’s friendships in the cooper and sharing weaving  techniques. 
  7. She works to help her family but she loves to weave. She needs the help to sell weavings to support her family. She values the Friendship and love she receives from the coop women. 
  8. Her father died. It’s up to her to help her mother. She gets support from the group.
  9. Koloval. Thank you. Kolovalik.
  10. She tells us her mother is blind. Her father died. She has responsibility to take care of her family. Women’s cooperative very supportive.

What I hear are women’s universal stories. we share similar hopes and dreams, family responsibilities. We care for our families, we have our housework, we may work outside the home. We depend on our women friends for emotional support and sustenance.

We brought gifts of hair clips, toothpaste, Kleenex, combs, hand cream, ribbon, reading glasses, band aids. The little girls loved the hair decoration and combs.