A group of us spent five days at Original this past week. This is a textile extravaganza in Mexico City that honors indigenous weavers and designers from throughout Mexico. With over 1,000 artisans showing and selling what they make, to say the event was mind-boggling is an understatement. The show also featured pottery, lacquerware, copper, basketry, jewelry, and so much more.
We needed five days to do justice to Original! The event was held at Los Pinos in Chapultepec Park. It is the former residence and grounds of Mexico’s past presidents. When Lopez Obrador took office five years ago, he converted the mansions and grounds into a cultural center accessible to all.
Prominently featured were the textile makers of Chiapas. They work on backstrap looms as wide as their hips. Each finished length of cloth is then meticulously sewn together using intricate needle stitching that when complete looks like embroidery — but it isn’t!
A highlight was our meeting with Alberto Lopez Gomez, a weaver, designer, and one of the volunteer event organizers. We sat together under the shade of a large tree just beyond his exhibition booth while he showed us an extraordinary teal blue and black collector’s huipil and explained the meaning of each symbol in the cloth.
This particular huipil tells a story that is significant in his village, which is part of the municipality of Magdalena Aldama, one of the most accomplished weaving villages in the region.
Alberto talks about how important snakes are in Maya symbolism, and points to the first row of design in this huipil. Then he shows us Señor de la Tierra, Lord of the Earth holding up the universe. The next image is one of a bat, which is a messenger in his culture; after that is the corn god named Culiacán, then the sun, mother and father, representing the family.
There are images of clay pitchers used to water the field crops, and triangles denoting the four cardinal points.
Diamonds also represent flowers, corn, and large stars that depict the cycle of planting. Farmers arise in the pre-dawn and are guided by the stars. When stars smaller in the sky, ancient farmers knew the rainy season coming and it was time to plant.
Snakes, worms, and caterpillars are highly respected in Maya mythology and used for traditional medicine. Mayas also honor the underworld, and this is also reflected in the designs.
In this huipil, we also see white orchids, which are gathered in the mountains by the elderly. They are the only ones allowed to collect these. The orchids are the border design around the collar.
If a garment has fringes or tassels, these represent the braided hair of the women. This particular textile is very special, Alberto says, because it represents the story of his pueblo.
He now works with over 200 weavers in various municipalities in Chiapas.
We visit Alberto in his private home studio in San Cristobal de las Casas during our Chiapas Textile Study Tour. We have spaces open and invite you to join us as we explore the Maya textile culture of southern Mexico this February 2024.
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.
A highlight of our time in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, is a visit to Alberto Lopez Gomez’ studio KokulPok’. He is the weaver/designer from Magdalena Aldama who was was recognized and invited to New York Fashion Week in 2020. Aldama is a remote village in the highlands about two hours from the city where women have been weaving on the back strap loom for centuries. He tells us he is invited to Washington, D.C. to exhibit and sell in April this year, representing over 200 weavers from his village and a few others who he works with. He is a young man with talent, vision and a mission. It is always satisfying to visit with him as he explains the weaving traditions of his village and his family.
Alberto learned to weave ten years ago at age 22 from his mother, who also taught him the symbols in the cloth. She is now deceased. He explains to our group the details in a magnificently woven huipil made by his sister Rosa Lopez Gomez. It uses hand-spun wool dyed with natural plants available locally, such as lichens and moss. Most huipiles today use commercially purchased cotton threads, so this piece is unusual. When he began to weave, he was ostracized because this is women’s work. But, he says women are not recognized either for their weaving skills and his goal is to bring more attention to the highest quality weavers in a very machismo culture. He talks about how he wants to uplift the important work of women: They prepare the yarn, spin and dye. They are the cultural guardians by including important spiritual and corporal symbols in the cloth.
Alberto is still the only man from Aldama who weaves. But he does more than that. He is a designer and guides innovation by suggesting color palates that go beyond the traditional. The workmanship of the pieces is of the highest quality. The weaving is dense and filled with meaning.
We learn about the symbols as Alberto explains each row of weaving. Our study tours are educational experiences that go deep. We see the triangles on the main panel of the textile and hear that this represents the universe. The side panels are where the weaver expresses herself by including symbols that are important to her. This one includes God, Catholic crosses, the plumed serpent, the union of mother and father, four cardinal points, the center of the universe, stars, orchards. Larger stars and smaller stars are Venus and the constellations. We see flowers and corn that represent the planting and harvest seasons. Women represent in textiles what they see around them in the natural world. When stars are in alignment, the elders teach that this provides notice of the coming rains. When a garment is worn and the arms are outstretched, it forms the symbol of the cross. The serpent design has a deep meaning: it connects earth and sky with the god of earth.
Alberto Lopez Gomez considers himself to be a voice for women in his community. He weaves, designs, communicates the history. His inspiration comes from dreams. His dream is to bring these textiles to other parts of the world and disseminate ancient Maya tradition through the textiles.
Our friend, Cristobal Santiz Jimenez, is a community leader in the Tzotzil Chiapas village of Magdalena Aldama, Chiapas. He was arrested on March 14, 2020, and imprisoned on false charges, according to the Fray Bartolome de Las Casa Human Rights Center and our friend Alejandro Alarcon Zapata.
Cristobal is still in prison, and may be there indefinitely: All court business is halted because of COVID-19. His wife and family have run out of money.
I am asking your help to make a gift. To secure his freedom. To provide food for his family. To provide legal assistance. To keep him safe in prison.
Any amount is appreciated.
Defense Fund for Cristobal Santiz Jimenez, Make Your Gift Via PayPalSend to Alejandro Alarcon Zapata email@example.com I am sorry. We are not set up as a charitable fund and this is not tax-deductible. You would give, as we have, out of the goodness of your heart.
We just visited Cristobal and his wife Rosita on March 2, during our 2020 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. We have visited them for four years. They talked about the on-going boundary dispute that has turned into an armed conflict by neighboring Santa Marta, Chenalho. They were scared then, and more so now. Aldama is a smaller village, more vulnerable.
Here is the back-story sent to me by Alejandro, who is our point-person and trusted information source.
San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. as of March 14, 2020
Urgent Action No. 03
Incommunication, criminalization and arbitrary deprivation of liberty of community defender Cristóbal Sántiz Jiménez
The Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center, A.C. (Frayba), documented the facts of human rights violations perpetrated against Mr. Cristóbal Sántiz Jiménez, (hereinafter Cristóbal) with the following facts: The arrest was made when he left his job today at 6:50 hrs . After 5 hours of being incommunicado, we confirm that the arrest was carried out by the State Attorney General’s Office, who transferred him to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and it was at 12:20 p.m. when the family was informed of the arrest of Mr. Cristóbal and his transfer to State Center for Social Reintegration of Sentences, N.14, el Amate, based in Cintalapa de Figueroa, Chiapas.
Cristóbal Santís Jiménez, peasant, belonging to the Tsotsil peoples, is representative of the Permanent Commission of Communards and Displaced Persons of Aldama. Member of the families that were attacked with high-caliber weapons by a paramilitary group from Santa Martha, Chenalhó and stripped of their land. He is a community defender, representative of the Permanent Commission of Communards and Displaced Persons of Aldama since the conflict arose due to widespread violence and forced displacement by the paramilitary group of Santa Martha, Chenalhó. In addition, Mr. Cristóbal has held traditional positions in his native town of Aldama, as a Traditional Regidor. Mr. Cristóbal has been working as a watchman for 21 years at the 133 Industrial Training Center in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas.
As a spokesman for the displaced communities, he has denounced the omissions of the Mexican State due to the escalation of violence in the upper Chiapas region. He was present during the signing of the Peace Accords, which was preceded by Governor Rutilio Escandón and Undersecretary Lic. Alejandro Encinas, immediately afterwards he participated during the so-called Banderazo de Paz. He has repeatedly faced threats from both the Mexican State that demanded his silence in exchange for his freedom; as well as death threats by the armed paramilitary group of Santa Martha, Chenalhó.
El Frayba requested precautionary measures number 284/18 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to protect the life, safety and integrity of Mr. Cristóbal Santis Jiménez and his family.
For this reason, this Center for Human Rights considers that the State Attorney General’s Office is perpetrating serious human rights violations, such as criminalization, arbitrary deprivation of liberty, placing Mr. Cristóbal at a high risk to his integrity and security. personal.
This Center for Human Rights requests the immediate intervention of the federal and state government to implement pertinent actions for the prompt release of Mr. Cristóbal.
We request from national to international civil society to send your appeal to:
Lic. Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Constitutional President of Mexico Official Residence of the Pines. Miguel Alemán House. Col. San Miguel Chapultepec, C.P. 11850 Mexico City.
Fax: (+52) 55 5093 4901
Lic. Olga Sánchez Cordero. Secretary of the Interior of Mexico Bucareli 99, 1st. floor. Col. Juárez. Cuacthemoc delegation
Lic. Rutilio Escandón Cadenas. Constitutional Governor of the State of Chiapas Government Palace of the State of Chiapas, 1st Floor Av. Central y Primera Oriente, Colonia Centro, C.P. 29009. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, Mexico
Cristóbal Sántiz Jiménez is a community defender of human rights, representative and spokesman for Tsotsil communities in forced displacement of Aldama, cultural promoter and traditional authority. His arrest occurs in the context of criminalization and threats to his life, liberty, security and integrity due to the constant denunciations of the omission of the Mexican State in the escalation of violence in the Altos de Chiapas region. Members of the Specialized Police of the Office of the Attorney General of the State of Chiapas, detained him on March 14, 2020, when he was leaving his job, kept him incommunicado for 5 hours and is currently incarcerated in the State Center for Social Reintegration of Sentenced Persons. , No.14, el Amate, based in Cintalapa de Figueroa, Chiapas, Mexico.
A journalist, Cristóbal’s friend, asked to AMLO for his liberation, check this link [AMLO is Mexico’s President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador]
Here, I am sharing four short videos from our recent 2020 Chiapas Textile Study Tour. They each explain the symbols that women weave into their cloth.
The first two videos introduce you to Albert Lopez Gomez and his reason for starting a cooperative to help his family and village of Magdalena Aldama. He wants to bring international recognition that weavers deserve for maintaining textile traditions.
The last video features Alberto Gomez Gomez from neighboring San Andres Larrainzar. Here, he explains the meaning of a small textile with 160 warp threads. It took his mother Antonia Gomez Santis two weeks to weave working five to six hours a day on the back-strap loom.
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