The textile cooperative Jolom Mayaetik is one of the oldest and most successful in and around San Cristobal de Las Casas, founded in 1980. This is the 5th year we have visited them and they continue to improve processes, increase production, build capacity and create highest quality weavings.
They have over 200 cooperative members in five different villages: Chamula, Zinacantan, San Andres Larrainzar, Magdalenas Aldama, and Oxchuc. Each village is known for their distinctive style of garment. All weave using the back-strap loom, are rescuing traditional designs, and are experimenting, too, with color and form to meet marketplace taste.
I’m always reminded about what cultural anthropologist Martha Turok once told me: Innovation and creativity are vital for keeping traditional indigenous textile processes alive. Without change, the practice will be lost.
Jolom Mayaetik president Elvia Gomez Lopez welcomed us again with open arms. She is the daughter of one of the founders. Their organization is based on mutual support of women, providing health care and education to families, guaranteeing a fair wage, and profit-sharing. Even those who don’t sell get paid.
These women are activist artisans. They subscribe to social justice and human rights. Resisting oppression is a cornerstone of their survival strategies. They are political. They participate in training programs to improve textile making skills and business skills. They are role models for young women in their villages who want to learn and work in collaboration with each other.
Husbands and sons participate, too. Boys are learning to weave. Men help with loom-building and some are supportive of their wives’ independence, because they are bringing money to the family and to communities.
Before we entered the newly constructed showroom where clothing and home goods are displayed for sale, we sat down around a large meeting table to share stories, break bread together, and hear from some of the cooperative leaders. The beauty of doing this first is to gain an appreciation for the values, goals, challenges and opportunities that Maya women face in their lives.
In this cultural exchange of sharing and asking questions, we come to know people as individuals, to hear their stories, and to appreciate the time it takes — often months — to create a handmade textile. Then, as we consider what we may want to purchase, we have a better sense of value for a woman’s time and materials.
We brought gifts of eye glasses of varying strengths to help weavers and embroiderers see better. We brought scissors, embroidery floss and scissors. We brought crayons and books for children. We brought our goodwill and desire to support the efforts of the cooperative by making purchases and making memories.
Thanks to our textile study tour travelers for contributing photos to this blog post: Lynn Nichols, Bitty Truan, Claudia Michel, Sheri Brautigam, Marsha Betancourt, Winn Kalmon, Margaret Sherraden.
We are offering this Deep Into the Maya World: Chiapas Textile Study Tour in 2021. The itinerary will be the same but the dates are February 23-March 3, 2021. If you want to join us, complete the Registration Form at the top of the banner of this website and email it. We will then send you a deposit invoice.
It’s different this year in San Cristobal de Las Casas. There are more upscale shops and sophisticated clothing designs using indigenous textiles. Just meandering the three andadors — cobblestone walking streets here — I see remarkable differences.
There are more visitors coming who are interested in textiles and the Maya culture. There is a greater influence from designers and the styles are definitely geared to a more upscale buyer. Some of the jackets and tops encorporate small elements of the Maya counting system but are magnified into stunning graphic designs.
It seems as if there is a new energy in San Cristobal. Yes, there are still young European back-packers who pass through on their way from Guatemala to Mexico, populating the busy new pox (posh) bars after 6 p.m.
However, there is innovation in the air, the kind I haven’t seen in the five years I’ve been bringing small groups of textile travelers here.
Perhaps this is because young weaver and designer Alberto Lopez Gomez from Magdalenas Aldama made a big buzz this year at New York Fashion Week. We are going to his cooperative this Saturday morning.
Today we are off to the traditional weekly market in Tenejapa.
Sheri Brautigam and I have committed to repeating this popular and always sold-out Chiapas Textile Study Tour in 2021. Our dates are February 23 to March 3. Send us a Registration Form if you are interested in participating. The itinerary will be mostly the same. Only the dates will change.
The Japan Textile Study Tour is filling up. We are a small group, limited to 10 people, and there are 4 spaces remaining! If you are thinking about coming with us to Japan, please don’t wait much longer.
I have confirmed plans to visit a noted Japanese national treasure, a textile artist who works in indigo, known as Japan Blue. Her studio is at the foot of Mt. Fuji near Lake Kawaguchi. We will spend a good part of the day with her, dyeing with indigo in her studio.
I have explained to her that we are visitors who understand and appreciate the art of indigo dyeing. I am told that our dye master is very selective about who visits her and welcomes anyone who understands and appreciates her art.
We will have a several hour immersion experience with her as we learn about her dye process and participate ourselves in dyeing pure cotton cloth that she will provide. Since she is very serious about what she does, she asks that we participate fully rather than just coming to visit and observe. I have promised her that we are coming to honor the age-old tradition of indigo dyeing in Japan, and honor her work as a serious artist and dyer.
The man who is helping me put this experience together is Japanese, a Harvard graduate, and he will serve as our guide and translator for our time at Mt. Fuji. He tells me the following:
The dye master is “living” with 4 pots of indigos in her small atelier, and she cares for her indigos like her pots 24/7 — like they are her babies!
In order to create the exact colors she needs in her art works, she precisely controls the fermentation of each of 4 indigo pots during the production processes of her art works. When she is preparing art works for big exhibition events, she pays special attention to the fermentation status of the indigo.
That is the basic reason why she does not usually provide easy-going, superficial “experience” programs for travelers; it will damage her indigos. From her artist’s point of view, she believes that brief“experience” programs that are business-focused and the art creation profession cannot co-exist.
What makes this indigo dye master’s art unique can be summarized into several points.
She is “building” indigo exactly in the same traditional way as the artisans back in 17th and 18th centuries.
She uses traditional fermented indigo grass which is now only produced in limited supply from Tokushima Prefecture.
She utilizes timber ash NOT sodium carbonate for the fermentation in the pots. To obtain good quality timber ash, she must use a wood-stove in her daily life.
So, our dye master is literally “living” with indigos.
She believes this was one of the most important aspects of traditional “Japan Blue” – artisans fed, cared for and raised indigo like it is their baby! They literally lived with indigos.
Our dye master is an artist first and foremost. She is creating contemporary art utilizing traditional indigos.
After the advent of chemical dyeing productions, and also Japanese apparel culture being westernized, traditional indigo dyeing has lost its position in the dyeing industry. But, our dye master believes that there must be artistic expressions which only “Japan Blue” can make. She is committed to proving that traditional “Japan Blue” can existent as a way of artistic expression in an era of high technology and streamlined processes. This is the only way that traditional “Japan Blue” can survive into the next generation.
To our best knowledge, there are no artisans or artists who are incorporating all of this.
We will be one of the few groups that our dye master will accept into her atelier, and let us “use” her indigo. We will have a unique opportunity to dye with Japan Blue and have our own piece of art to take with us.
She asks that if we appreciate what she does, we can also purchase her art work ONLY IF we like it!
We now have 6 people registered to come with me and Nathan Somers, a North Carolina indigo dye master, on this Japanese textile adventure. I will accept no more than 10 people. If you know of anyone else who would like to join us, please ask them to contact me. It is important that we have a small group experience that is meaningful for each of us.
For me, the most emotional part of our visits to the remote Oaxaca villages along the coast of Oaxaca is to meet the women who weave and hear their stories.
Our Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour takes us north out of Puerto Escondido along Mexico Highway 200. This region is called the Costa Chica and extends from Puerto to Acapulco, Guerrero. Small roads, often winding, are like fingers carrying people to/from the main towns of Jamiltepec, Pinotepa Nacional and Ometepec.
We travel deep into the foothills into these weaving villages where isolation has preserved a traditional way of life.
We meet the women who are the backbone of their families. For the most part they work in cotton. Their work is intense. They grow and pick native cotton. They clean and card it. They preserve the seeds of natural cream-colored, green and coyuchi brown cotton. They use the malacate drop-spindle to make thread. And, they weave wefts of cloth using the back-strap loom, creating designs formed by a technique called brocade or supplementary weft.
There is a growing market for natural, hand-made cloth dyed with natural plants and cochineal and the caracol purpura snail. But the market is still not big enough to create widespread prosperity. It takes years to be recognized and sometimes, not at all.
Women and families struggle. Mostly it is the women’s work that brings the income that buys medicine for aging parents or a sick relative. Mostly it is the women’s work that pays the school tuition, buys books and uniforms for children and grandchildren. Mostly it is the women’s work that brings food to the table — the tortillas, the hot chocolate, the occasional chicken for a fiesta.
Men work the fields. They raise corn, beans and squash. They tend the animals. This work is not income producing because every family grows its own corn, beans and squash to feed themselves. There is no commercial market for the basics that go on the table. This work for men is subsistence farming. In the socio-economic life of a village, weaving cloth can mean a path out of poverty.
Another path out of poverty is the long road north, to El Norte, where uneducated village men can migrate with a coyote across the desert at night, cross a border without papers, and become undocumented workers. They are the farm laborers, restaurant dishwashers and cooks, gardeners, poultry slaughterers and handymen, doing the work that few others want. They stand in line on Friday afternoon, wiring remittances home, sometimes never returning.
The women continue on.
A few women go on to university in Pinotepa Nacional or Acapulco and become accountants or lawyers or teachers, but not many. Some women choose not to marry, a bond that requires them to go live with a husband’s family, taking on their livelihood and craft, contributing to the household of the in-laws. Some women see that the men are in despair, turn to alcohol for consolation when they have little earning capacity and lose their self-esteem. For this reason, many choose a life of independence.
We come not to judge but to understand. We do what we can. We support their work by visiting and buying direct. We are the appreciators who admire, wear and collect what they make. We are cultural appreciators rather than cultural appropriators.
The women who make cloth learned from their mothers and grandmothers. They have been around thread all their lives. Most started weaving at age twelve. They might sit tethered to the back-strap loom for six or eight hours a day or longer. It can take three months or longer to make a fine huipil.
Do you love what you do? One of us asks a weaving cooperative member.
I weave to help feed my children and family, and cover costs for school, one woman answers.
I do love to weave, and I’m proud to continue the work of my grandmother, answers another. It provides for us, but we need places to sell.
We must support each other economically, says a cooperative spokeswoman. It’s in our solidarity that we will help each other and raise us up. It’s more than a social get-together. It is our livelihood.
Children, boys and girls, age eight to twelve, are learning to weave. This is our future. Our boys are also learning to make loom parts and grow cotton. Men can always help and we encourage their participation, she continues.
In the outdoor kitchen, at the comal, a group of women pat masa into tortillas. They turn the corn dough with thumb and forefinger, careful not to burn themselves. Their fingers are worn with years of cleaning cotton, turning tortillas, washing clothes, spinning, caring for others. Some have lost their fingerprints to hard work.
They salt the hot tortilla, picking up the salt between thumb and forefinger, drizzling the tortilla, rolling it and handing it to us as a gift of welcome. It is fresh, slightly chewy and crunchy, the taste of real food. A simple life can also be a harsh one, and I caution our visitors not to romanticize the experience of being here.
In our home countries, we are absorbed with technology, family isolation and the intensity of politics. Indigenous women in Mexico are absorbed with finding access to markets for their work, good health care and education for their children. What unites us is our humanity and our mutual respect.
For many of us who go off-the-beaten-path to visit makers, we can first be surprised, even shocked at how humbly they live. Some of the most famous artisans I know live in adobe houses or those made with concrete blocks. They may not be able to afford a finished floor or it is not a life-style value.
We go into homes with packed dirt floors, swept clean. We go into outdoor kitchens where amazing food is prepared over a simple wood-fired stove; sometimes this is a grill over a cut off garbage can. Occasionally, the sanitary facilities are not plumbed and we must put a bucket of water into the toilet to flush it. We note these differences and appreciate the abundance in our lives.
We also appreciate the abundance in the lives of Mexican families who live close to the land: they live among their mothers, fathers and grandparents. They are supported by a deep network of community, of friends and tradition. They eat homegrown food. They yearn for the same things we do: health, education, contentment and prosperity. They create works of art.
Our Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour 2020 began with a deep dive into the ecology of the region. We left Puerto Escondido in late afternoon for a hour ride north to the Manialtepec Lagoon. We are in the tropics, hot, sultry and a perfect place to escape winter.
It is magical here, where sea and fresh water mix with spring water to create a brackish environment where bioluminescence is created by algae. The phenomenon can be best seen on a moonless night.
This is a haven for nesting birds and a ride through the fingers of the lagoon reveals colonies of birds waiting to feed just before sunset. The banks of the lagoon host mangroves that have been here for centuries. It is a source of food for indigenous people, a host for sea bass, striped mullet and mojarra.
Along the shores that remind me of bayous and swamps of the American south, we see cormorants, woodpeckers, parakeets, hawks, ducks, heron, egret, orioles and more. Our eco-tour guide is knowledgeable and can spot birds from afar with razor precision. He points to a Peregrine Falcon high in a tree. We don’t see any crocodiles!
This is also where protected sea turtles come to shore along the beach to lay their eggs. We participate in an endangered Ridley sea turtle release, scooping the littles one out of their nesting hole with small jicara bowls, never touching the turtles with our hands. There is a line in the sand where we release them, and watch as they scramble from beach to ocean.
The turtles use their built-in radar to guide them to their habitat. We learn that only about ten percent will survive to adulthood.
After the sea turtle release, we take our seats around a dining table set up on the beach where we enjoy fresh grilled tuna prepared by a local cook. As we eat, the sun sets to the west, giving us another memorable experience.
By now it is dark. We climb back into the boat and travel the waterways back to the main lagoon. Our captain, who grew up on these shores, uses a strobe light to guide us, but I suspect he knows this water like a second skin and has navigated it since he was a child.
He finds just the right spot for us to jump into the warm water from the boat. This is one part of the experience that I love. Move the water with your arms and feet. Watch the droplets sparkle and glow in the dark. (A regular camera cannot capture the image of this phenomenon and so I remember with an impression imprinted in my memory.)
Our goal here is to understand the rich diversity of the Oaxaca coast. To see how indigenous people depend on their natural resources for sustenance. To explore the environment and protect the delicate balance that exists between human and wildlife. And, to enjoy ourselves!
This gives us a footing for exploring textile villages and meeting artisans in the coming days. It is also time to relax and ease into coastal life after the intensity of travel to get here.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle