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Power Symbols and Brocade Woven Dreams in Tenejapa, Chiapas
The last Mayan festival during January was in the village of Tenejapa, Chiapas, about 16 miles northeast of San Cristóbal. As with all the other festivals I wrote about this past month, this one was mighty unique. Instead of celebrating San Sebastián, this community celebrates the patron saint San Ildefonso on January 23, the saint’s feast day. An added benefit was a stop at the weaving artisan cooperative, founded in the 80s and run by Maria Meza Guzman. Our guide, Chip Morris, said, “Maria is the president of the association for her life.”
For me, the best part of festivals is the dress. I can do without the incense and firecrackers, just leave the music and colorful dress and I’m entertained. In Tenejapa, the man’s traditional dress may seem a bit subdued compared to Zinacantan’s floral beauty, but I was taken with the multi-layered approach—short, handwoven cotton pants with a wide brocaded, richly-designed band at the bottom edges, covered by a handwoven, longish vest with a handwoven sash around the hips (also brocaded), a wide-brimmed hat with streamers of colorful ribbon fastened around the neck with woolen strips ended by quite large pompoms and tassels. The ensemble is completed by the carrying of a maguey fiber bag. The religious authorities wear the power symbol of a rosary necklace adorned with medals.
Backstrap Woven Brocade Pile
Throughout the day, red-and-black handwoven patterns appeared on all the garb of men, women and the saint statuary. I remember our guide, William (Chip) F. Morris, talking about the various myths and folklore of this region, but imagine this: “One night, in the isolated hamlets of Tenejapa, a number of women had the same dream. Santa Lucía [patron saint of weavers] appeared to the women and told them she wanted to wear a brocaded huipil. The ten women who received this dream didn’t know what to do. Brocading had completely disappeared in Tenejapa during the 19th century, “the Time of Slavery,” [Mexican Revolution] and not even scraps of fabric were left to clothe the saints in the church.”
“A few brave women decided to travel to San Andrés and Chenalhó where the weavers still knew how to brocade. After years of study, the Tenejapa women learned how to weave the ceremonial huipil of Chenalhó…” This excerpt is from Chip’s book, “A Textile Guide to the Highlands of Chiapas”. The power of dreaming and weaving really came alive for me and the procession of the saints through town reinforced it. Here’s a procession view in the short video.
Upon further reading of Chip’s book, I learned that the Tenejapa women wore a two-web huipil (two woven pieces of cloth, stitched down the middle) not the three-web worn by Chenalho women. So they redesigned the patterns used by the Chenalho weavers and rearranged them so that the “universe” design–diamond patterns within a larger diamond–alternated with a “dog’s paw” design, often leaving white bands to offset the patterns.
Many interpretations of this design cover the walls of the artisan cooperative. During our visit, Maria Meza Guzman showed us how she created the short pile loops on her backstrap loom.
Embroidered Pile Stitch
Not all designs are woven anymore. Tenejapa weavers learned the technique of an embroidered running stitch from the women in San Andrés during an artisan co-op meeting in the late 70s. Similar in appearance to the looped pile woven brocade, the embroidered version is quite portable. If you look closely at the base cloth you can see it’s done on a cross-stitch ground cloth and not a handwoven one.
Chip Morris, in his recently published book Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas, devotes a chapter to cross-stitch embroidery and its migration throughout the Tzotzil community. The weavers have also adapted their motifs to crocheted bags so handwoven ones are not quite as common.
Thanks for armchair traveling with me during the Maya Festivals in Chiapas. If you enjoyed this trip, share it on with others. By doing so, you help sustain the artisans and their traditions.