A decade ago, Chiapas was in the news alot. Not for the abundance of craft production that goes on there, but because of the charismatic leader, El Subcomandante Marcos, the masked poet revolutionary who speaks for the poor in Mexico's most neglected state. I hadn't heard anything in a long time from that part of the world, so I decided to do some internet surfing. Sure, there is plenty, but much of it is over two years old, has broken links, or focuses on coffee production. Chiapas borders Guatemala and the Mayan descendants who live there are experts in many craft techniques. I focus in on the textiles because that is what I do: look for threads! The lack of current information surprised me, but given that other parts of the world are in even more desperate blood baths, perhaps interest has dwindled recently.
To put you in the fiber context, here are a couple of examples of traditional Mayan huipils (woven blouses) from Sna Jolobil, a non-profit working with indigenous women in Chiapas for over thirty years:
The largest of these groups is Tzotzil, agrarian and sheep herders by tradition. Unesco has an extensive description of the importance of sheep to these people. Wool products account for 36% of the family's income, completely in the domain of the women. The wool from this area is thick, long and rich, easily recognizable once you have seen it and felt it. Sheep are not eaten, in fact, they are considered sacred, as soul mates. Here is a snippet from Grain which carried an interesting article about the importance of these sheep:
"First of all, sheep are part of the culture of the Tzotzils; since they are sacred animals protected by the local religion, it is forbidden to hurt, to kill or to eat them. Secondly, they are also the exclusive responsibility of women, who take every decision over any issue related to these animals and also keep and manage any money derived from their sheep. The Tzotzils believe that every person has an ‘animal companion’ who suffers the same fate as his or her soul mate. When a person is ill or dies so does his or her animal companion. Even when most animal companions are wild animals, it is recognised that sheep can be the secondary soul mates of shamans and healers, and this is the reason for not hurting or killing them. However, it is only sheep that are sacred, and cows, horses or pigs are just domestic animals for the Tzotzils, who raise them, kill them, eat them, or sell them as needed.
The importance of sheep is related to the traditional clothing of the Tzotzils. Clothes for ceremonial or daily use are made out of wool and any visitor to the villages or to the local markets will find men in their heavy black coats or their sleeveless white jackets. Women wear their black woollen skirts and their richly embroidered brown blouses, and they cover themselves with black shawls. Children’s clothes, blankets and bedspreads are woven to blend fleeces of different colours, to create an infinite number of grey and brown shades. These woollen clothes are quite heavy and a hairy finish is highly regarded; they are also waterproof and last a very long time: two or three years of daily use."
Unfortunately, even though Chiapas is one of the wealthiest states in Mexico in terms of natural resources, the people who live there see little benefit. Hydroelectric power generated in Chiapas powers much of Mexico City. Instead, they are among the poorest of the poor in Mexico. Chris Arsenault wrote an essay in 2005, reflecting on the then ten-year old resistance movement that had sprung up in Chiapas:
The revolt was led by El Subcomandante Marcos, a figure who, like Che Guevara, has captured the romantic dreams of the oppressed and turned them into poetic action. Although we never see his face, he speaks with a directness that is infectuous. How can he not be the most beautiful man under that mask?
Wikipedia has an interesting story on who this Marcos might be, so hop on over if you want to know more (AFTER you finish with my story!!!!)
Photo: James Daria
In the same article, Arsenault attributes the growth of women's textile cooperatives to the rebellion without mentioning that many other non-governmental and non-profit organizations have been in the area for decades. I did not see any clear evidence in my surfing that the handsome masked man has greatly improved the conditions of the poor in Chiapas. Instead, I did see that Lucia and Ernestina, in the photo on the left, and others like them, have benefitted from these other organizations who have helped them improve their farming techniques, given them access to larger markets and to financial opportunity through micro-credit approaches. The video below is one such example:
I consider myself a pacifist (or, maybe I am just a coward). I have absolutely no idea if I would remain such if I had been born into a society where my life chances were so minimal, but I like to think that economic development is a much better way to go than through violence. And, I also will support any effort where communities can engage in handicraft and textile production in order to better their lives. This, I will do to the end of my days. With some access to credit, a hard working woman can buy some land. She can feed her children and have her sheep soul mates. Clinics and schools and infrastructure will come as they pool their resources. Above all, she will have her dignity.
Visit my other blog, Artezano Links for more resources on the handicrafts in Chiapas.