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Cordry Internship 2002-2003

Cordry Internship 2002-2003

Weaving and Change in Indigenous Chiapas, Mexico

Map of Chiapas, Mexico
Map of Chiapas, Mexico.

Nestled in among the ancient mountain ridges sits the quiet village of San Andrés Larrainzar in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. A long twisting drive from the nearest town, San Cristobal de las Casas, takes you up through the fog and misty, cool air to the outskirts of the village. Each of the many villages in highland Chiapas has a distinctive style of weaving and clothing. For my field study I collected huipiles [WE-pill-ace], or woven blouses, from San Andrés Larrainzar.

Juana is weaving a wall-hanging she
plans to sell to tourists
Juana is weaving a wall-hanging she plans to sell to tourists.

The Science Museum of Minnesota has one of the largest collections of huipiles from Chiapas in the world. The majority of these pieces were collected during the 1970's. For this study I was interested in learning how weaving and huipiles have changed over the years and why the changes were occurring. I was also interested in learning about other cultural changes that have taken place since the 1970's that have affected the manner of and motivation for weaving.

This 8-year old girl is learning to weave from her aunt
This 8-year old girl is learning to weave from her aunt.

Weaving in Chiapas is exclusively a woman's activity. Through the act of weaving, Maya women continually express and thus actively work to retain their womanhood, ethnicity, world-view and collective identity. As it has been for thousands of years, mothers, grandmothers, aunts and older sisters teach girls and young women to weave. However, the age that many girls are beginning to weave today is much younger than before. From conversations with many older women, I learned that 40 and 50 years ago women first learned to weave most often as teenagers. They wanted to be able to make clothing for their family and, if they excelled, to weave the ceremonial huipiles that dress the community's statues of the saints. Many of the younger women that I spoke with, however, explained that they began learning to weave as young as seven or eight years of age. The youngest women I spoke with wanted to learn to weave to be able to create blouses, pillow cases and other weavings to sell to tourists. Being able to weave their own blouses was an added bonus instead of their primary motivation for learning.

Manuela is weaving a traditional belt worn by men, which few women still know how to weave
Manuela is weaving a traditional belt worn by men, which few women still know how to weave.

The colors and styles of huipiles woven in San Andrés have also changed in the past 30 years. Many of the San Andrés huipiles in the Museum's permanent collection and these newest acquisitions differ in color and design. Many of the huipiles woven today in San Andrés have more abstract and stylized geometric designs than the more traditional designs woven even five or ten years ago. The most dominant color used in the woven yoke of all San Andrés blouses is red; however, there are several different hues and values of red commonly seen. Through the years the colors have changed from an orange-red, to a true-red, dark-red, and most recently maroon has become the most fashionable color. There are many possible reasons for these changes. Because of time and resource limitations, my research can only hint at some of the causes. The field-work and research conducted over the years through the Science Museum's Cordry Internship has helped to create an enormous wealth of knowledge about Latin American folk-art.