The weather turned. It got cold. Cold enough for wool socks, down jackets and mittens. There are fourteen of us and we climbed into the van with our guide Alejandro and our resource expert Sheri. Our destination was the weekly Thursday market in Tenejapa.
It’s Carnival time here. In Tenejapa, this coincides with a pre-Hispanic celebration to pray for a good corn planting. This is a mash-up time of celebration — to mock political leaders including Lopez Obrador, the president of Mexico, and El Señor Trump whose costumed character paraded around in arrogant style. It is a time for drinking posh, the local distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane, and eating tamales.
I advised our travelers to look deep and carefully along the market street, into dimly lit shops selling food, medicines, household goods, shoes, to find handwoven textiles suspended in the shadows. This is how they might find a treasure to take home from this distinctive backstrap loom weaving village.
At the cooperative founded by 65-year-old Maria Meza and others in 1980, we learned about women’s lives, the passing on of the tradition to young women, and how everything in the cooperative is made without compromise on the traditional backstrap loom — from simple bags to elaborate huipiles.
The cold fog never lifts and it seems it got colder by the time we arrived at Romerillo cemetery. Everything was shrouded in fog. We ate our lunch of sandwiches and chips like campers, huddled under the the Maya crosses adorned with dried pine branches, sitting on the concrete base or standing. It was a quick visit.
Our final stop was at the home of Maruch and her son Tesh, in a remote Chamulan village about 30 minutes from Tenejapa up a winding dirt mountain road. This is not standard tourism. Here, they showed us how they weave the furry Chamula-style wool skirts dyed with mud filled with minerals that turns brown sheep wool the color of black.
After the demonstration and the opportunity to buy ponchos, shawls, and embroidered bags, we ended our day with a sip of nanche-flavored posh and a demonstration of ancient Chamula musical instruments — including ocelet skins with bells — and song performed by Tesh and his brother Alejandro.
We were back in San Cristobal de las Casas in time for dinner!
Sheri Brautigam, author of Living Textiles of Mexico, and I are organizing another Deep Into the Maya World: Chiapas Textile Study Tour in 2021. The 2021 dates are February 223-March 3, 2021 and the itinerary will be about the same. Our trips usually sell-out, so if you are interested in joining us on this adventure, please complete the registration form at the top of this website and send it to me. Registration is now OPEN.
My North Carolina friends just left the village after spending a week with me celebrating a belated birthday. It was a bash! Mucho mezcal. Mucha fiesta. Mucha comida. Lots of travel to villages to visit favorite artisans.
We spent a morning with antiquarian Adrian Montaño in Teotitlan del Valle. I met Adrian a couple of months ago when I was visiting with friends Christophe and Rogelio who operate Maison Gallot. But, I had seen him around town, in the market, always impeccably dressed, a woven straw hat topping off the costume.
Adrian lives in a part adobe, part brick and part concrete house tucked into the hillside above the village. He has a wonderful view. He has one very ancient loom. His house is adorned in antiquities and a beautiful altar. He has been weaving since he was a boy. He is now age 75 and still productive.
In the 1960’s, missionaries came to town and began a program of conversion, translating oral Zapotec into English. (Many still do, and call themselves linguists.) They befriended Adrian, who decided that rather than convert, he would learn English from them.
His language skills are impeccable and he speaks Zapotec, his first language, Spanish and English flawlessly. He says it is important for young people to keep the language traditions alive. To earn a living, he teaches Zapotec and English to village youth, and weaves ponchos.
His hidden treasures are a stash of vintage textiles that he wove himself, mostly when he was in his twenties, and those he has collected over the years. We were treated to a Show and Tell. I am sharing the photos of these beauties here.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s, most of the textiles woven were bed blankets. They were natural sheep wool or were synthetic dyes most common to the era — red, green and black. Motifs were animals, birds and symbols of Mexican nationalism. Few remain in pristine condition. Storage is a problem and moths love the dark “chocolate” richness of natural wool.
Back then, the looms were narrower and to make a bigger tapestry, the weavers needed to create two exact pieces and then sew them together down the middle. Each side needed to match up! Only the masters could achieve this. These became either blankets or ponchos/serapes.
It was not until the early 1970’s that blankets then became adapted to become floor rugs. This happened when young travelers came to Oaxaca from the USA, saw the beautiful weavings produced in Teotitlan del Valle, understood the beginning craze of Santa Fe Style and worked with weavers to create sturdier floor tapestries.
Many back then brought Navajo designs with them and contracted with weavers to reproduce Native American designs that were then sold throughout the Southwest. Thus, began the rug-weaving boom in the village where I live.
Today, there is a return to natural dyes and to the traditional Zapotec designs that are found on the stone walls of the Mitla Archeological Site. Moreover, young weavers are developing their own style, taking traditional elements and making them more contemporary, innovating to meet a changing marketplace.
Adrian Montaño has a reverence for his roots. He openly shared his collection with us. Many of the weavings had moth holes. Some were pristine. He tells me that those washed with amole, the traditional natural root used for soap, will prevent moths from nesting. But few people use amole these days.
I love Adrian’s ponchos. They are short-cropped and come to the waist. They are designed using the Greca (Greek-key) pattern so named by a European archeologist who explored Mitla.
If you want to visit Adrian and purchase a poncho, please give him a call. (951) 166-6296. Only go with the intention of supporting him by purchasing what he makes.
We are fascinated by the Madonna, the Virgin, the Mother Earth Goddess known as Our Lady of Guadalupe, celebrated as The Queen — La Reina — of Mexico. Her feast day, December 12, has come and gone, yet the discussion about her meaning and origins continues.
The most complex came in the form of questions from Tim Tempel. Since I’m not a scholar of Mexico and the virgins — Juquila, Guadalupe and Soledad — that are celebrated here in Oaxaca, I asked Tim to research his questions and share with me his findings. He did, and agreed to my publishing what he found here.
Thank you, Tim, for adding your insights. I’m quoting Tim’s original questions below with his follow-up communication with me. Plus, I’ve offered comments, too.
Based on your article on the Virgin of Guadalupe I had asked the following questions of you:
“How does the Virgin of Soledad relate to the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Virgin Mary? Somehow I thought the Virgin of Soledad was specific to Oaxaca. Also, I thought that both Virgins were the equivalent of the Virgin Mary. In Mexico you generally see either the Virgin of Guadalupe or the Virgin of Soledad at the altar. You don’t also see the Virgin Mary. This led me to believe that they were all a likeness of the Virgin Mary.”
In addition to these questions I have been interested in understanding better how religious faith has evolved in Mexico and the impact, not only on “socio- religious identity” but also on the culture, politics and economy of Mexico.
After doing a little, and I do mean little, research on the subject at your suggestion, I have the following unscientific observations:
1. An article from the “International Journal of Frontier Missiology” which provides an interesting discussion of the origin of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The article is entitled “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Study of Socio-Religious Identity.” Type in the search area of Google international journal on frontier missiology Virgin of Guadalupe and you will see a PDF of the article.
2. My original limited understanding of the subject was that the Virgin Mary is the Virgin Mary regardless of the name ascribed to Mary. The article attached points out that: “The fact that nearly every Latin American country has its own version of the Virgin shows that the conquered people all desired an image with whom they could identify. In Cuba, she became known as the Virgin of Caridad del Cobre; in Bolivia she is Our Lady of Copacabana; in Brazil she is Our Lady Aparecida; in Nicaragua she is Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception of El Viejo; and in Venezuela she is the Virgin of Coromoto.” I also add that in Oaxaca there is the Virgin of Soledad as well as the Virgin of Guadalupe.
3. I subscribe to the article’s point of view that while Mary is Mary, there may be differences in how Mary is perceived by country or region, or region within a region, based on each region’s need to identify with someone who can understand and relate to their specific issues. For example, in Oaxaca, there is a celebration of the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12th and a celebration of the Day of the Virgin of Soledad on December 18th each year. Each represents an adoration of the Virgin Mary but each is accommodating different needs of segments of the population.
4. In Catholic Churches I have attended in the US or Europe, the focal point of the altar is Jesus Christ nailed to the cross. In the churches I have been to in Mexico the focal point is the Virgin of Guadalupe or the Virgin of Soledad. The attached article points out that the Virgin, in some ways, has a greater status that Jesus Christ in Latin America for several interesting reasons identified in the article.
5. As another variation on the subject, in a town near Lake Chapala in Guadelajara, Cajititlan, there is a church where the three kings are the focal point of the alter, not the virgin.
6. In a church in the village of Chamula, outside of San Cristobal in Chiapas, the formally Catholic Church now practices the indigenous faith of the region, not the Catholic faith. There are also some villages outside of San Cristobal that are so fully invested in the Catholic faith that the village encourages people with other faiths, such as evangelical or protestant, to leave the village even to this day.
7. Relative to the subject of your blogs (i.e. Mexican arte popular, culture, etc.), the Catholic Church, via Bishop Vasco de Quiroga was appointed Bishop of Michoacan in 1537, was somewhat responsible, on the upside, for arte popular and crafts in Mexico. The skills Quiroga implanted among Purépecha of the Pátzcuaro region have been passed down to their descendants, who some consider among some of the most skilled craftspersons in Mexico. Quiroga’s method of specialization by community continues to this day: Paracho produces guitars, Tzintzuntzán pottery, Santa Clara copper products and Nurío woven woolens.
Norma’s comments in response:
Re: #2 — Regarding the Oaxaca celebrations, we celebrate the Virgin of Juquila, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Virgin of Soledad. All three are important here. Juquila and Soledad are more regional, whereas Guadalupe is universal throughout Mexico. As Mexicans have migrated to El Norte, they take their saints with them. Celebrations extend beyond borders, either state or federal.
Re: #3 — Santa Catarina Juquila is very important here as well. Her feast day is December 8. Throughout Oaxaca, villages make pilgrimages to the Juquila shrine in the Costa Chica region of Oaxaca, center of the Chatino people.
Re: #6 — In Chiapas, especially in San Juan Chamula, non-Catholics who have converted to evangelical Christianity, are expelled from villages.
Re: #7 — Each region of Mexico was evangelized by different Catholic denominations: Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians, Jesuits. It is true that Quiroga introduced artisan craft specialties to Michoacan and especially the Lake Patzcuaro area. The region was evangelized primarily by Franciscans and it was a jockeying of power there between all. In Oaxaca, the Dominicans controlled the region and trained Teotitlan del Valle artisans in rug weaving using the European treadle loom and imported sheep/wool. Pottery and back-strap loom weaving were pre-Hispanic skills. Alebrijes are a 1970’s innovation.
December 12 is the Feast Day for Mexico’s beloved Virgin of Guadalupe. The devoted make pilgrimage to her shrine in the Mexico City basilica named in her honor. Many arrive crawling on their knees in supplication. She is honored and revered. Her image appears on every form of religious and commercial iconography you can imagine, from altars and pendants, to tote bags and dish towels. Here in Mexico, I might say she is more popular than God and Frida Kahlo.
She is officially known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the common vernacular she is also called The Patron Saint of Mexico.
What motivates me to write about the Virgin of Guadalupe today? It is Sunday in North Carolina, where I now sit after completing two intense medical procedures upon my arrival (completely cleared of any issues, BTW). I am not Catholic, nor am I a woman of extreme faith. I have my beliefs and was raised in the tradition of question asking and skepticism. I am not an expert in social, cultural or religious history of Mexico by any stretch of the imagination. However, I am a keen observer and appreciate analysis. At university, I majored in history and political science. I have always been curious about revisionism, myth and how storytelling can be interpreted as fact. I also like to hear others’ points of view. This is how we learn and respect differences.
So, who is the Virgin of Guadalupe? She is Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the common vernacular she is also called the Queen of Mexico and the Patron Saint of Mexico. That’s where I got in trouble: I called her a saint in my blog post about the opening of the Virgin of Guadalupe textile exhibition at the Museo Estatal del Arte Popular in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
First, my friend Rebecca wrote to set me straight: Catholics would put her [the Virgin of Guadalupe] above the saints and wouldn’t refer to her as a saint. They might call her Our Lady, The Blessed Virgin, etc.
I replied that Wikipedia and Huffington Post call her the Patron Saint of Mexico, after I went back to verify my facts.
Rebecca came back with: I think the Huff Post is inaccurate. They just didn’t have a word and “patron saint” sounds reasonable. No one would say Jesus is the patron saint of anything. No one ever refers to her as Saint Mary. Jesus, Mary, The Holy Ghost (Spirit), and God the Father are in their own category. I don’t know how things translate in Spanish. I know Our Lady of Guadalupe is beloved. But again Our Lady is not saint.
On Monday, December 10, 2018, I posted on Facebook asking the question: Is the Virgin of Guadalupe a saint?
Hector replied, yes, she is a saint and included in the Catholic Church’s Martirologium Romanum: a list of the people considered to actually be in the presence of God. She is actually considered to be ascended to heaven in her physical human form: Guadalupe is an “advocacy” a kind of suit or custom in which Mary is considered to be willing to present herself to some culture.
I reminded myself that syncretism — the blending of indigenous and Spanish conquest religious, social and cultural practices is how acceptance of the new religion — Catholicism became embedded in the New World.
Hector wrote back saying: Guadalupe (cave of wolves in Latin) was an advocacy of Mary meant to be used in the Christianization of Moorish people in Spain (that is the origin of her dark skin)… and it was also used in Mexico where it blended with the local Mother Earth Tonantzin.
Cristina noted: There is a saying in Mexico: “No todos somos católicos, pero todos somos Guadalupanos.” (We are not all Catholics, but we all believe in Our Lady of Guadalupe.)
Then, my long-ago friend Evangeline added this link from Skeptoid: The Virgin of Guadalupe. This was a history version well-worth reading, since the article postulates that it was Cortes the Conqueror who brought Guadalupe to Mexico from Extramadura, his home region in Spain, to use in the evangelization of the Indios. Seems there was a Guadalupe Shrine there, too. Perhaps the image was repurposed and adapted to a new location, and the accompanying Juan Diego (he is a saint) Virgin Mary sighting told to make conversion more appealing.
You can read the Skeptoid article if you want to know more.
Nevertheless, what is most important, I think, is that the Virgin of Guadalupe has taken on ecumenical proportions as a powerful female figure around the world. Not only is she the most revered in Mesoamerica, she represents woman as Mother Earth, Goddess, strength and perseverance, and yes, of freedom. But, she has evolved.
This paper: The Virgin of Guadalupe: Symbol of Conquest or Liberation, offers an important explanation of the politics of conquest and conversion, race and classism, and how the Virgin of Guadalupe was used to turn a recalcitrant indigenous population from paganism to the new religion. This gives us context and understanding for her popularity. Eventually, later paintings of her included the angel being draped by the Mexican flag, giving legitimacy to nationhood.
Needless to say, the Virgin of Guadalupe is embedded into the popular culture of Mexico. Perhaps it doesn’t matter who she is or what she is called: Virgin Mary, Tonantzin, an amalgam of both. Perhaps she is no longer a unique religious symbol, but an icon of the divine feminine in each of us.
Why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated and where is it celebrated most? More than a great time for a Margarita or a swig of Corona, Cinco de Mayo was the response by Mexican-Americans — mostly Californians — to the French invasion of Mexico, The Battle of Puebla, and fear that the North would lose the Civil War, enslaving those with Mexican heritage along with Blacks throughout the southwest.
Mexican Californians gave hugs amounts of financial support to preserve the Union and defeat the Confederacy. They had a lot at stake.
I wrote about the roots of Cinco de Mayo in 2012 that offers history and a UCLA professor’s research about the topic.
I’m in southern California this weekend for a family reunion and to attend a Cinco de Mayo Fiesta Viva la Vida honoring a dear friend, Michael Stone and his wife Charlotte. I’m reminded again being in my California homeland about how strong Mexican culture here is and has been for centuries. Afterall, this was once part of New Spain!
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
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