Saturday, August 3, 2013

Chiapas Part 8: Museo de Trajes Regional, a stunning collection of tradtionial Maya clothing and textiles

Museo de Trajes Regionales is packed with exquisite Maya textiles and clothing. On our visit to San Cristóbal de las Casas we had a "must-see" list. Near the top was Museo de Trajes Regionales (Museum of Regional Clothiing). Carole does most of our research prior to visiting a new location and this was one of the places that consistently got high marks. In fact, Tripadvisor.com, one of her key sources, ranks the museum as #3 among the top 24 sites to visit in San Cristóbal. However, this excellent private museum is also surprisingly difficult to access.



Finding the place was our initial hurdle. As you can see, there are no signs or other indications of the wonders within. The museum looked like hundreds of other colonial-era houses within a few blocks of the plaza. We made several attempts to find it, asked neighbors, and finally located someone who could physically point it out. Another problem is that Mexican street numbers often follow a non-sequential, rather free-form order. The address is Calle Guadalupe Victoria #38 and it is approximately 3 1/2 blocks west of the Catedral. Here is a Google map showing its exact location. Sergio Castro, the multi-lingual private owner of the collection, provides tours by appointment. The tours are usually held around 6:00 PM. The best approach is to set it up through your hotel concierge or B&B owner. There is no fee, but donations are gratefully accepted. The money goes to provide medical care and other assistance to low-income Maya. Suggested donation is something in the range of $100 pesos ($7.78 USD) or more would be appropriate.

Maya textiles

Traditional hand-looms are used to create the textile works of art. Although the back-strap is absent, it would normally be attached to the ends of the wooden brace at the bottom. The strap runs behind the back of the weaver, who generally sits on the floor or the ground. The other (top) end of the loom would be attached by the hook to a tree or pole. Looms of this sort are very ancient. The earliest woven fabrics found in Mexico were discovered in dry caves in the north and date from between 1800-1400 BC. Ixchel was the ancient Maya goddess of weaving, and she is sometimes portrayed weaving the universe with a back-strap loom. The Spanish introduced the foot-treadle loom in the 16th Century, and the French brought in mechanized weaving in the late 19th Century. However, back-strap looms have continued in use among indigenous people right up to the present.


Tasseled belts with brilliant designs hang from the museum wall. Sergio Castro assembled his collection of textiles, clothing and artifacts from items left with him when he provided medical care to the Maya coming in from the villages surrounding San Cristobal. They were too poor to pay with cash, but too proud to accept charity. Over time, his collection grew to occupy most of his house. He began to offer tours so that more people would appreciate the extraordinary cultural contributions of the highland Maya. His work as a curandero (healer) is financed, in part, by the donations of visiting tourists. Curanderos use traditional healing rituals and techniques, as well as more modern methods. Interestingly, the Maya weaving deity Ixchel was also the goddess of medicine and midwives.


Maya embroidery is often exuberantly colorful. Styles vary from pueblo (village) to pueblo. They range from abstract and geometrical to depictions of animals, plants, people, and daily activities. The only limits are the imaginations of the weaver, which tend to be vivid. In addition to his work as a curandero and curator of Maya costumes and crafts, Sergio Castro served as a state senator (2000-2003) from Chiapas, and is an agricultural engineer and veterinarian. Don Sergio speaks French, Italian, the Mayan dialects of Tzotsil and Tseltal, as well as Spanish and English. In spite of his professional and political background and accomplishments, he is a very unassuming man. Even on formal occasions, he tends to dress in the same way as the poor people who flock to him for help. Most photos of Don Sergio--even at a posh awards ceremony--show him wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a plaid shirt with a kerchief wrapped around his head pirate-style.


Animals and plants, including some from distant lands, adorn this tapestry.  Lilies, egrets and sunflowers would all be within the direct experience of the weaver, but a giraffe? Globalization has shrunk the world to a size where a craftsperson in a remote mountain village in southern Mexico can depict a creature from East Africa on a textile that may end up on the wall of a tourist from Belgium.


Elegantly woven tapestries use intricate geometric shapes. The yellow, red and blue diamond design indicates it may have come from the pueblo of Las Margaritas, southeast of San Cristóbal de las Casas.


This huipil is from San Andres Larrainzar.  The pueblo where this originated is far to the northeast of San Cristóbal, deep in the mountains. The heavy material is probably necessary because of low temperatures in that area. A huipil is a female garment, somewhat like a poncho. Made as a rectanglar piece of cloth, it has a hole in the middle for the head, and is sometimes worn as a blouse or tunic, and sometimes as an outer garment. The sides of the huipil are often sewn up, leaving holes for the arms Generally, huipils are worn with a skirt that extends down to the mid-calf.


Clothing styles differ from pueblo to pueblo

Modern clothing styles are creeping in, but many still wear traditional clothing. Above, you can see the typical traditional garb worn in a particular village. The male outfit is on the left, and the female on the right. Unfortunately, the clothing displays lacked signs, so for some of the photos that follow, I can't always tell you the village of origin. However, the clothing above comes from San Juan Chamula, a short distance outside San Cristobal. I can identify it because of the black wool garment among the man's clothes. Typically, the particular style of embroidery and weaving identify not only the village, but the marital status, social standing, and other details about the person wearing the outfit.



Maya textiles have almost 3000 years of cultural history behind them. The Maya of Chiapas have been influenced by contact with other parts of the Maya world, including Guatemala and Yucatan, as well as by the various ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, such as the Aztecs, Mixtecs and Zapotecs. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced new weaving technologies such as the foot-pedal loom. They also brought new materials such as sheep's wool from Spain and silk from the trade with the Orient. The Maya combined all of this with their traditional techniques, designs and materials to create spectacular outfits like those above and the others that follow. The style of the male hat and tunic indicate that the outfit above may have come from the pueblo of Zinacantan, not far from San Cristobál.


The weaver incorporated feathers into the design of the huipil on the left. The symbols used by the creators of these clothing works-of-art range from representations of the natural world to more abstract symbols. The diamond patterns that one often sees represent a mystical connection with the universe. Some of the designs reflect historical incidents particular to the village in which the weaver lives.


Here, the male outfit is equipped with a gourd and a fibre shoulder bag. The gourd would be used to transport liquids and the fibre sack for dry items. The rebozo draped over the shoulder of the female costume is an all-purpose garment seen throughout Mexico. It serves as a shawl, a baby carrier, and a container for any number of small items. The lightness of the fabrics indicates that the outfits may have been made for the lower, more tropical areas of Chiapas.


For Maya, textiles are the main form of visual art. There are some painters and sculptors, of course, but there are over 1 million Maya women who weave or embroider. The women compete for who can create the most elaborate and beautiful clothing, and their sheer numbers make weaving a very dynamic medium. As the Maya communities have moved from economic dependence on subsistence agriculture to participation in the culture of money and commerce, fashion has also appeared.


The arts of weaving and embroidery are thriving in the Maya highlands. Some experts used to think the craft was a dying art. However, a market has grown within Mexico, and among foreign tourists as well as among the Maya themselves. Ironically, better communications and transportation, which often doom native cultures, have resulted in a Maya textile renaissance. Some experts see Maya textiles as more sophisticated, complex, and technically proficient than they were only a few decades ago.


Specific articles of clothing

Wide-brimmed hats, adorned with multi-colored ribbons, are part of many male outfits. While women do most of the weaving and embroidery, men make the pishalal (wide-brimmed male hat). The men treat hat-making like some women do knitting. It is an activity that is very portable and can be done anywhere, even while chatting among friends. They will often make two new hats each year, to be worn in important pueblo festivals. Ribbons have replaced the feathers of earlier times.


White cotton pants reach to just below the knee. The pants of traditional male outfits are seldom longer than this, which must mean goose-bumped legs on a cold day. The fringed and embroidered tunic reaches to mid-thigh and suggests clothing for a cooler climate. In ancient times, men wore breech cloths rather than pants. The Spanish priests thought this immodest and insisted they adopt Spanish-style pants. However, an ancient vestige of the breech clothes has survived in the beautifully embroidered belts often seen in traditional male outfits.


Doing sandals in the old-fashioned way. I have seen ancient paintings of men wearing sandals very similar in style to this. The Maya seem to follow the old dictum, "if it works, don't fix it." Traditional Maya women peddling their wares on the streets of San Cristóbal often wear sandals even in cold, wet weather.


Embroidered cotton cloth forms a background for a tumpline. This handy device is an ancient invention for carrying heavy loads on the back. The wide section of the tumpline is placed around the forehead or just above it. The two long straps extend back over the shoulders and are attached to the load. Use of a tumpline allows a man to carry a load of 56.6 kilos (125 lbs) with relative ease for long distances. As late as the 1920s, a man in Mexico City used one of these to deliver pianos on his back. In my travels around Mexico's back country, I still see men and women carrying large bundles of firewood and other loads using similar tumplines.  The Maya call the tumpline a mecapal. Given that the ancient Maya had no other beast of burden than a human being, and that many in Mexico today are too poor to afford a horse or burro, a macapal is a simple and very logical tool.


These two outfits are from San Juan Chamula. The black and white tunics are the tip-off. They are made with furry wool and are called capixay. This warm outer garment is usually worn over an embroidered shirt. Note the typically short length of the white cotton pants. The leather shoulder bags are a handy accessory since the pants and capixay don't appear to be equipped with pockets.


Other items of use

Children's clothes fill a couple of walls at Don Sergio's museum. Maya children are dressed as miniature adults, with the same elaborate embroidery that appears on their elder's clothes.


The museum collection includes various hand-made children's toys. A beautiful miniature collie sits in front of a horse with a doll on its back. To the left is a figure carrying an automatic weapon and wearing high yellow cowboy boots and what looks like a green football helmet.


A carved wooden jaguar mask snarls from the wall. Such masks would be worn in Maya religious festivals and rituals. Jaguars were, and are, revered among indigenous people of Mexico and Central America. The biggest cat in the Western Hemisphere, the jaguar is immensely strong, fast, cunning. His  tendency to hunt at night gives him a connection with the Underworld.

This completes my posting on Sergio Castro's Museo de Trajes Regional. I hope you have enjoyed it. If so, and you would like to comment or leave a question, please do so in the Comments section below or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. bixaorellana@gmail.comAugust 5, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    What a feast! Thanks for the wonderful view of this museum. I've been following all your fascinating posts on Chiapas, but this is the one that finally convinced me I need to return there for a visit.
    You really got some great pictures, which is always difficult in museum lighting.

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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim