As I sat pondering what culture to highlight in this second article in the Dual series, fate intervened. A FedEx package arrived from Chiapas, Mexico. It turns out one of my very good friends was traveling throughout southern Mexico for several months, and sent me back embroidered shirts upon reading my first entry (link above). If that's not friendship I don't know what is!
Chiapas is one of the 32 states of Mexico and borders Guatemala. Like the other 31 states of Mexico, its traditions are rich with art: textiles being one form. This article covers some of the textile work in Chiapas and has links to books on the topic. In researching Mexican embroidery on the web, I found my lack of Spanish a roadblock to the richness living in local stories and articles, but let's dive in anyway.
Indigenous work of the hands
Where Indigenous culture thrives, beautifully crafted textile work thrives. According to this website, textiles have existed in Mexico for 7,000 years.
These wonderful colorful textiles....traditional embroidered blouses, back strap woven huipiles, loomed quechquemitls and belts....link the indigenous peoples with culture and cosmovison of their native culture. As grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters sit with other family members to make the garments they discuss style, techniques but something else more important, behaviors, customs of marriage, child birth, the herbs used for healing, how to make a tamales etc.
Some states carry their traditions more closely than others. Oaxaca, according to this article in National Geographic, is among the most proud and steadfast in its indigenous culture. The dress, festivals, and languages remain as intact as Oaxaca's inhabitants wear them both everyday and at festivals.
Mexican photographer Diego Huerta traveled to Oaxaca for the annual Guelaguetza festival in its capital city. There he spoke to NatGeo about his work in capturing Oaxaca's indigenous landscape. In his own words:
I was born in the state of Nuevo León in the city of Monterrey. Northeastern Mexico has always been characterized by having broken ties with native peoples, so that the traditions are practically extinct. That is why, when I first [met] with the Wixárika people in the mountains of Jalisco, I could not believe [the] beauty in their clothes. From that moment, I decided it was time to know everything I [possible] about traditions in Oaxaca.
His photographs are breathtaking and you may have seen them circulating on the internet through NatGeo and this article from Huffington Post. What strikes me the most is the color. Perhaps it is this late winter making me hunger for bright florals, but nowhere have I seen embroidery as vivid as on the clothing from southern Mexico. Take a look at the Nat Geo and Huff Post articles for a more complete view of Oaxacan textiles.
The convenience of modern life transforms more than just daily routines. As Westernized goods and ways of life change cities, towns, and villages, long-held traditions fade with each generation.
Projects like the Mexican Textiles project work to document traditional dress before it disappears, along with Indigenous language. Robert E. Freund, along with the help of native speakers, has documented the traditional dress of nearly 850 villages since 2001. He writes to explain the pressures stripping culture of tradition:
Around the world indigenous cultures are under pressure from the forces of modernization and globalization. In Mexico, years of government neglect and a persistent racism have created an economic desperation which has forced generations of men and women to flee the poverty of their communities. These indigenous people immigrate to the big cities of Mexico and the USA. Traditional dress marks them as indigenous, and in a society where being an “indian” puts you at the bottom of the social ladder, that is not good. So for decades, as people leave the communities, they leave behind their ancestral knowledge of how to weave, embroidered and the social identity that the Mexican indigenous textiles and language provide.
I can only imagine that until the status of Indigenous people is raised will the traditions not be lost to the culture-eater that is the modern economy. The structure of family has much to do with culture. I'm reminded of Wendell Berry's seminal "The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture" on this front:
Such an attitude [of excellence] does not come from technique or technology. It does not come from education; in more than two decades in universities I have rarely seen it. it does not come even from principle. It comes from a passion that is culturally prepared--a passion for excellence and order that is handed down to young people by older people whom they respect and love. When we destroy the possibility of that succession, we will have gone far toward destroying ourselves."
While the fabric of the future of indigenous people in Mexico and around the world remains uncertain, traditional wear is still being made, woven, sewn, embroidered, loomed, and most importantly, worn.
Clothes are meant to be worn, and though documentary websites and museums have an important place in the understanding of culture throughout the ages, their stillness can't capture the vivacity and joy in Mexican clothing. Created for thousands of years by the hands of women, one can see the value in them and hope for their sustainable future. It feels better to be celebrating a living culture, than mourning the death of one, after all. If any of you have links to websites, books, films, or personal stories of Mexico and specifically its Indigenous population, please, comment below!