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Jan 30

Textile Travel Leads to Maya Festivals

Would this description of a festival intrigue you: “Burning incense, booming fireworks, parades, horse races, singing, ritual dances and costume that ties the Maya of 1,000 years ago with the Spanish conquest and the present day.”? Add to that it takes place in textile rich Chiapas, Mexico, which says to me, “It’s textile travel time”. Festival Maya, as this tour was called, was sponsored by Traditions Mexico and guided by William (aka Chip) Morris. I’ve traveled with both before and knew that, no matter what, by signing up for this trip, it would be a cultural immersion involving traditional and exotic ways of life.

I was raised Catholic so four years ago when I visited the church of San Juan Chamula and saw a healing ritual which included a shaman lighting rows of small to long candles on the floor with a chicken next to her and drinking Coca-Cola, I knew this was not the brand of Catholicism I knew. On the side altar were statues of the Virgin Mary and saints covered in layers of handwoven huipiles and textiles. I made up my mind right then to return to Chiapas during festival time to see how ritual and textiles would interweave in real time. I was not disappointed.

Each village pulls out all the stops during the almost weeklong celebration of San Sebastián. So why does this saint deserve so much adoration? Local belief is that Señor Sebastián was a Spanish army captain who wandered where he shouldn’t have. Jaguars attacked him but he didn’t die. The Lacandons from the jungle shot him with arrows. He didn’t die. And when he finally arrived in Zinacantán, he was accompanied by a cast of quite colorful guys who, to this day, are characters played out during festival time.

Over four days, we visited the municipalities of Chamula and Zinacantán multiple times to take in the various stages of festivities—a great way to get a behind-the-scenes look. Having been to both villages before, I knew a bit of what to expect regarding clothing–Chamulans would wear clothing made from sheep’s wool (and look like sheep doing so) and three-mile-away Zinacantán neighbors would be a sharp contrast in brightly-colored floral dress. What I learned from our guide Chip Morris was vastly beyond my first observations.

Chip’s the real deal when it comes to translating the local culture and colorful characters, the Maya stories and “so-called” history, and how textiles have woven their way through everyday life, festivals, and religious ceremonies. Before leaving for the trip, I quickly read through his new book, Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas,  that’s where I learned to be acutely aware of men’s and women’s dress in all its subtleties during festival time. And then during the trip, Chip’s mantra of “Slow down. Be still. Watch.” all made sense but hard to do when fireworks are exploding around you.

It’s Sunday, January 18. Sunday is market day–a perfect day to see everyday dress and a glimpse of what the week would hold. Community life stems around market days and church activities. So visiting Zinacantán and then Chamula, highlighted the elements of dress and a closer inspection to its various parts. Note about photos: Most people did not want their photos taken so my images are usually taken from the side or from behind them. It’s strictly forbidden inside churches. Besides, the churches are pretty dark inside, the air filled with incense smoke, and packed with people in various forms of prayers and rituals. 

Daily wear for Chamulan women consists of a satin blouse with an embroidered yoke over which a machine-knit sweater is worn; a heavy black wool skirt, handwoven on a backstrap loom, secured around the waist with a handwoven belt; and topped off with a rebozo worn on the head while they are in intense sunlight.

Zinacantán dress celebrates the flowers that surround them and that they grow in acre upon acre of greenhouses. Flowers are key to their economy and are part of every celebration. So naturally, why wouldn’t their clothes be covered with them too?

The unique characteristics are displayed in the two churches as well. San Juan Chamula is “quieter” with evergreens playing a larger presence in decor and ritual. San Lorenzo Zinacantan is resplendent in flowers.

I have more to share in future weeks, but get ahead of me by reading Maya Threads. It will give you a richness beyond armchair traveling.

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