We arrived in Zinacantan feeling like we were going into completely new territory, not uneasy exactly but definitely with a sense of care and respect that the Zinacantan villagers may not want to share any information about their ways of life to random people coming to ask questions. I was really hoping that it wouldn’t feel intrusive to go and have a look around. The difference with this visit is that we didn’t have any meetings set up as such so we were turning up, just hoping some of the villagers would agree to answer our questions and open up a little about their way of life and their community. We needn’t have worried in that sense, as the moment we stepped out into the square a young girl came and offered a tour of her family’s workshop to see the weaving. And then another and another and another until slowly it dawned on us that we were on a conveyor belt of tourists wanting to see how the vibrant dresses of the Zinacantan people are made.
There was definitely a quietness about Zinacantan although the more we were there, the more I noticed the same friendly looks as I had noticed everywhere on the journey, the people, as with all sorts of other communities we had visited so far, were family people and on seeing that you are travelling with a baby can’t help but smile or wave. And here there are 5 year olds carrying 2 year olds on their backs in a shawl, the children giggling at each other and whispers in Tzotzil and they say Hola Chiquita a lot to Talitiu which means ‘little curly one’.
The first thing to say, on arriving here is that no words or pictures can really convey the sheer vibrance and beauty of the Zinacantan dress. The colours are literally so stunning you are just lost in a sea of beautiful purple and pinks and blues. All flowers woven together and embroidered into the men and women’s dresses and every child has a shawl over their shoulders, fastened at the neck. They all look so beautiful.
We decided to go back to the first girl that asked us to visit her family’s workshop and see where it might lead. She had a gentle honesty about her and we felt like it would be a good start so she led us off, down the street. On the way there, we became part of a procession of villagers who marched along, with music and people dressed up as leopards and animals painted with black faces and we realised we had come on the first day of the celebration of San Sebastián – a big celebration for the people here.
When we got to the girls house, her older sister demonstrated how they use a blackstrap loom and we watched as she made a few turns as she probably had for many other visitors to their front room. There was a few other people who came along for the same thing so we hung about marvelling at the intricately embroidered clothing that hung from every wall and ceiling for people to buy waiting to get a quiet moment to ask if they would mind if we asked a bit more about their life. The girls mother appeared and she made us feel welcome with one quick kind look. Again Talitiu broke down every potential shyness barrier between us all by toddling around their house, chatting away and going into the kitchen to to help herself to one of their tortillas on the table which made the girls giggle. We finally asked the mother if she would be open to talking to us and before we even began she had got to work making fresh tortillas and handing them round and gesturing to sit down at the table. I don’t know what it is about tortillas but they are so comforting, it makes you feel at home immediately to be offered them, all warm and welcoming. Really we were all just women, chatting around a table and laughing at each others jokes.
Here is a selection of the interview :
Rosa Reinada Peréz Gonzales. Zinacantec.
I’m 41 years old, I have 5 children, 4 girls and one boy.
What is a normal day in your life like? … I work. I weave during the day and at night I work on my embroidery. I start at around 7 in the morning and sometimes I work through until 10 at night. It’s a lot.
And on top of that you have the household work? … Ummm, yes, but not so much, I have my daughters and they take care of the household jobs. I make the tortillas in the morning, sometimes I make food in the afternoon, but most of the houshold work is done by my daughters. Then, after lunch I continue with my work.
Names of the children? … The oldest is Andalucia, then Reina Catalina, Carolina, and my son Flaviel Martín.
How old were you when you began learning to weave? … I was 8 years old when I began to learn embroidery. The backstrap loom I began when I was 12.
And have you shown your daughters? … Yes, now they know … The youngest knows just embroidery.
Where is the importance for you in showing your children how to weave? … Yes, It’s just like this, we show them the loom, the most important is the loom, the embroidery, because they need to make their own clothes. And to make the tortilla.
These are the 2 most important things? … There are 3 things, learning to weave, making tortilla, and embroidery.
And what does the traditional clothing you wear mean to you? Her son Flaviel had come into the room and says : It’s the meaning of the flowers that grow here in Zanacantán.
And are these you everyday clothes or are they for more festive occasions? … No, everyday. There are different clothes for the festivities.
And how do you feel, what do you think about people who come from abroad to buy and then wear your traditional clothing? … Flaviel speaking: We like that they come and buy, and that they wear it because it attracts more people to come and buy from us, because it’s artesanal work from here. Right now theres a lot of work from artesans being produced and it’s becoming fashionable, it goes into galeries and those kinds of places. Zinacantan is going to become more or less recognised, now there is work from here spread all over the country. Some people are incorporating parts of the work into more contemporary designs, because they like the colours. And for us, well it feels good, that they buy from us, that they wear the clothes, because it looks beautiful. And that they don’t critisise us either in our clothing, it means that they like our clothes and they don’t critisise us in our traditianl clothing. There are some people who critisise us.
But most people do like the artesania from here because it’s a form of art, and it’s made by hand, and in the looms. Not many people do that anymore.
And well yes, thats how we feel, we feel good that people buy from us, that they dress in them. And then more people get to know the work, it brings more tourism, and they value the work.
How long has it been since you began to sell outside of the local market? Because for example in a village called Santo Tomas Jalieza we visited, we were told that before there were just very few people who were weavers in the village because the production was more for the people of the town. But then after the 1940’s, when more tourism arrived,people began to produce a larger production of their wares to sell to tourism, so more people from the town began to learn how to weave. Is that what happened here aswell? … Yes, that is just what happened. Because before we made the clothes but only for ourselves, but then it changed, maybe … (thinking how long ago it changed) … Let’s say I was about 12 years old when the artesania began, yes, thats how old I was. Now i’m 41, so how many years is that? Let’s say 28 years.
Yes, now we take up more of the artesania. Because, before it wasn’t really artesania, it wasn’t really anything, we just made our clothes. We worked the loom, embroidery, but just for ourselves, for the men here in the village.
So they produced less? … Yes. Most women most of them worked, but just making the same clothes, but now we make to sell, and so now most women work.
And what do you do to earn money before the artesania? … How did we maintain ourselves? The men would work the land, they would sew the corn. That’s what they worked on before. Some women aswell, but most of them we housewifes, they worked on the loom aswell. With that, the men working, they’d maintain the women. And the women would go into the mountains to fetch the firewood, and that’s it. But now no, now the women work with their artesania, and with that they maintain themselves today.
But then sometimes there were women who didn’t know how to weave, so they’d go to someone elses house to have clothes made for them. That’s how it was when I was growing up with my mother. There were some women who didn’t know how to work the loom, so sometimes they came and order clothes here and we’d make them, but here for the people of the village. That’s how we’d maintain ourselves aswell. But now no, not anymore.
Are there pieces of work that are more traditional and others more contemporary? … Yes, now there are a lot of flowers, more colours, before there weren’t so many colours. Before they were more like this (showing a photo), these are similar to some that I have here, similar to these more traditional clothes. Before they were used, but not so much any more.
So your saying that the flowered designs that are being used now are newer, more contemporary? … Yes, because the flowers aswell we only just started to do, since they started growing the flowers in the village, before there weren’t any flowers, just corn. The flowers arrived and so the clothes began to change aswell.
So the clothes that people are wearing for example to day in the festivities, are the older designs or newer ones? … They are new. Modern.
More or less how old are they? … Maybe, 30 years, more or less.
And why did they begin them? … I think it started when they began growing the flowers. So they started to copy the flowers to make the clothes.
What inspires you in life to create? To make your art? … What do I like? I like the loom and the weaving.
How do you choose the colours to combine them so well? … We just start by choosing them. We buy lots of different colours and then combine them. Just like that.
You make it sound so simple (laughter).
Have you noticed a change over the past few years in the techniques you use? … Yes, but it doesn’t come so much from the people from the village, it’s outsiders who come and want something new, different, more modern designs.
Do you enjoy doing it? … Yes, I think that if I do new styles, different jobs, well then i’ll sell more.
Are there things that people ask for where you think ”no, I don’t want to do that”? … Yes. For example a lot of these pieces well now I know how to do them, from memory, this is my work. I know what colours to use, how big it needs to be, etc. Then someone asks for a different design, I don’t like it so much, it’s more difficult. And yes sometimes they’ve asked for jobs, but I don’t enjoy it so much.
I’d like to ask again, because before it was your son who responded. What do you think about foreigners coming, buying and using your clothing? … For me it’s fine that they are buying the clothes I use. For example they value my work. They like my work, I like that they buy from me, or if they order pieces from me.
Let’s say if they buy from me, well, now I can maintain myself. It’s very important for me… That I can maintain myself on what people buy from me, so I can buy myself things that I like.
And does the work with artesania give you a good income to live off? … Not so much, but well, yes it’s what I live off.
Are you married? … No, it’s better that way, laughter all round.
And this piece that I bought, how long did it take to make? … I don’t know, lets see … O yes, a month and a half. It’s a lot of work. By hand.
(she brings out a piece shes working on)… Look at this, i’m making this one.
This is one that Carolina is making, my daughter.
And how long will it take to finish this one? … Oooo, three months.
How is it that you have so many pieces? … Well we are a few people working, so when we’ve finished with one we start on the next.
And then are there other people who work in the village who bring their wares here to sell in the shop? … Ahh, yes, aswell. Neighbours, cousins, sisters, who don’t have a shop so they bring it here.
We left feeling so grateful to Rosa and her family for sharing their Tortilla and talking to us. We decided to join in on the fiesta to see what it was all about. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed here which is a shame as all the towns people in their beautiful finery was such an incredible sight to see and amongst all the music and celebrations in middle was a tree that they had assembled. One of their rituals was for the men dressed as animals to climb the tree and throw down oranges with a crowing noise which made all the people at the bottom to crow even louder. The next part seemed to be the people on the ground throwing squirrels (not alive of course) up at them and they would catch them and throw them down with lots more loud crowing. Then the people at the bottom would all hold the squirrels up and the men coming down would have to try and get down the bottom. Quite an experience to watch!
The fiesta will go on for another two days so as the afternoon came to an end we decided to head back to San cristobal to digest the whole day’s events and think about what was said.