Saturday, September 14, 2013

Chiapas Part 13: Zinacantan, center of Maya weaving & embroidery in the "Land of Bats"

A mother and her two young sons pause for a photograph in ZinacantanCarole and I visited Zinacantan on the same tour that took us to the pueblo of Chamula (see Part 9 of this series).  It is ordinarily difficult to get the Maya in Chiapas to pose for a photo, but for a small fee, this woman agreed. I am glad she did because she provides a wonderful example of the day-to-day clothing of local Maya and how they wear it. Her beautifully embroidered shawl is called a tzute. Her son, standing in front, wears a jorongo (poncho) similar to those worn by the men of the community. In addition to the embroidered flowers, it has fringe along the bottom and long tassels on either side.

The Pueblo of Zinacantan

Low clouds drift over the pine-covered hills surrounding the small agricultural community. Zinacantan means "land of the bats," although we never saw any durng our visit. The town's elevation is 2558 m (8392 ft), so it gets plenty of precipitation and everything is lush and green. The area reminded us of Oregon, where Carole and I lived for 20 years. While there are almost 30,000 people in the municipalidad (county), the town itself has only about 8,500. The remainder are scattered in the hills in tiny hamlets and individual farms. Of Zinacantan's population, 98% are Tzotzil-speaking Maya, and they jealously guard their culture and traditions.  For a Google map showing Zinacantan and its relationship to Chamula and San Cristóbal de las Casas, click here.

Greenhouses line the slopes of the Zinacantan's small valley. The area's climate makes it ideal for the growing of flowers, making it one of the three pillars of the local economy. The other two are textiles and maiz (corn). As the town has grown, and more land has been devoted to flowers, there has been less land available for maiz cultivation. Local men often have to walk as much as a day's journey to their milpas (small fields) in Chiapas' lowlands. There, they live and work for weeks at a time. Why not just grow flowers and import the maiz from other areas? The answer lies in the deep connection between maiz and culture. The Maya have been growing maiz since at least 2500 BC. Their famous calendars were originally developed to pinpoint the correct times for planting and harvesting. The god of maiz, Hun Nal Yeh, also known as Yum Kaax, was one of the most important deities in the Maya pantheon. The cultivation, harvesting, preparation and consumption of maiz are woven into every aspect of the traditional Maya life and worldview.

Inside a greenhouse, hundreds of pink cosmos bloom. The tour guide was sympathetic to my photographic instincts and she stopped our van so I could peek inside one of the greenhouses. Once harvested, some of these flowers may be loaded into chrome-encrusted, red pickup trucks and transported to the Mercado Municipal in San Cristóbal. Others may be driven hundreds of miles to Mérida in Yucatan or other distant locations. As you will soon see, the presence of beautiful flowers in Zinacantan has led to their incorporation in the designs of the textiles produced here.

An eclectic religious tradition

At the edge of town, we encountered a small cement altar set with three crosses. These were very similar to the crosses we saw at the plaza in Chamula. In both places the crosses had a similar appearance, with green paint and circular tips. In both places, the crosses were decorated with pine wreathes. One difference was that the Chamula crosses had small circles containing 8-pointed crosses carved on the cross pieces and tips. The crosses above lack this decoration. During ceremonies, a statue or picture of a saint is sometimes placed in the niche below the crosses. In the ancient Maya religion, a cross represented the Ceiba, or World Tree. The Ceiba can be found in Chiapas' lowland areas and grows as tall as 70 m (230 ft). The huge buttress roots can be taller than a grown man, and the canopy spreads over the jungle. The Maya's World Tree has its roots in the underworld, its trunk in terrestrial life, and its canopy (represented by the cross-piece) in the heavens. A carving of the World Tree can be seen at Palenque in the ruins of the Temple of the Foliated Cross. As at Chamula, the Maya of Zinacantan seem to have retained much of their ancient beliefs, but incorporated elements of Catholicism in order to keep themselves on the right side of their Spanish overlords.

A family altar. Flowers, pictures of holy figures, statues of various animals, and numerous candles were incorporated into this elaborate altar. We found it in the entrance hall of a shop selling textiles. Many traditional Maya homes contain similar altars.

A row of clay animals stands in front of the altar. Included are dogs, a horse, and a giraffe. Each has a lit candle on its back. The animals are totems meant to protect the house.

A visit to a textile shop

A back-strap loom, ready to use. The loom's leather back-strap is clearly visible, as are the shuttles used to weave the thread. The far end (out of sight) is usually attached to a post, tree, or other upright support. Backstrap looms can be used to create brocade designs as well as plain weaves, unlike treadle (foot-powered) looms. Ixchel, the Maya moon goddess, was the patron of weaving. She was the consort of Iztamna, the father of the gods. In ancient times, Ixchel was often depicted using a backstrap loom to weave the universe. Various kinds of products can be woven on these looms, but one of the most common is the huipil (blouse) worn by Maya and other indigenous women.

Male poncho, called a jorongo. Men, as well as women, wear colorful, flowered garments with fringe and tassels. The jorongo worn by the little boy in the first photo of this posting is a small version of this one. The garment is worn over other clothing, sometimes including blue jeans and other non-traditional items. Women, on the other hand, seem to dress traditionally from head to toe.

Woman's wedding huipil. The wedding huipil is called a k'uk'umal chil il.  White chicken feathers are woven into the embroidery. This wedding huipil is longer than the ones used for daily wear. It is worn with a dark, embroidered skirt.

The feathers of the k'uk'umal chil il symbolize the attributes of a good marriage. Chickens are part of the daily life of the community. They do not fly, even though they have feathers, and they stay close to the home.

A red jorongo hangs beside a blue and white tzute. The little shop was packed with beautiful clothing like this, as well as wall hangings. tablecloths, and other woven, brocaded and embroidered textiles.

The textiles came in all sizes, designs, and prices. The members of our tour group poked about and eventually picked out a few items for purchase. I didn't have much use for a jorongo, but I bought a few small items as family gifts. Many of the items seen above are available for purchase at the plaza in front of San Cristóbal's Catedral, as well as at the mercado surrounding the Templo Santo Domingo, and the crafts booths in Chamula. However, they are likely to be more expensive at those locations.

Eagles, egrets, monkeys, dogs and lions filled a box in the shop. While some adults might swoon over a tzute or jorongo, kids of all ages would enjoy these. These little critters show creativity and humor of the Tzotzil.

Templo San Lorenzo Martyr

Three green crosses, adorned with wreathes, face the Templo across a wide plaza. Prior to the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in 1524, the town was an important commercial hub and was the center of the Tzotzil culture. A Mexica (Aztec) general called Tiltototl conquered the town in 1486. The Tzotzil were required to produce tribute items including salt, cacao, and tobacco.

A sharp, but heavily forested, volcanic knob overlooks the Templo's plaza. Strung across the plaza are banners put up to celebrate the August 8-10 Feast of San Lorenzo Martyr, patron saint of Zinacantan. San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) was one of seven deacons in the early Church in Rome. He was born in Spain in 225 AD and martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Emperor Valerian in 258 AD. As a deacon, one of his jobs was to protect the treasures of the Church. Another was assisting the poor and the sick. When a Roman official demanded that Lorenzo turn over the treasures, he concealed them, including (according to legend) the Holy Grail, the chalice Christ used at the Last Supper. The deacon then gathered all the poor and sick and presented them, saying "this is our treasure!" The official ordered Lorenzo to be slowly roasted alive on a grille. The legend say he felt little pain because he was already on fire with his faith. After he had roasted for a while on one side, he famously said "I'm well done. Turn me over!" As a result, he is the patron of cooks and chefs, among others.

Templo San Lorenzo was built on the site of the first Dominican church. Dominican friars constructed the first church in Zinacantan church in 1546.  That early structure was made of adobe with a thatched roof. The bishop of Chiapas at the time was Bartolome de las Casas, the great defender of the indigenous people of  Nueva España. He donated a library, jewels, and two great clocks. The church has been rebuilt several times since then. The most recent reconstruction occurred during the 19th Century when the interior was decorated in its present Neo-classical style. Note the colorful banners, similar to those strung in the plaza for the August fiesta.

The entrance was lavishly decorated for the Feast Day. The words on the arch over the doorway say "Long live San Lorenzo Martyr. Welcome to Zinacantan." I have read there is a sign near the door prohibiting the sacrifice of chickens on the floor of the church during prayers. However, I didn't notice it when I visited. In nearby San Juan Chamula, chicken sacrifices at the church are normal practice.

The whole place was lush with bouquets of flowers. Apparently, like the church at Chamula, photography is forbidden here. However, our guide did not mention this, I had seen no signs, and nobody approached us about it. I happily clicked away, as I had done in so many other Mexican churches. Later, after reading the accounts of others who visited before me, I realized my faux pas. Fortunately, no one seemed upset about it and I escaped censure.

The side chapel was as large and almost as richly decorated as the main nave. Notice the row of lit candles along the rail across the front. Colored electric lights have sometimes replaced candles in Mexican churches, perhaps because of the fire hazard. 

Jesus, draped with ribbons containing messages, stands at the center of the side chapel's altar. It is often the practice in Mexican churches to leave a request or message of thanks on a ribbon draped over one of the sacred figures. I had previously identified this figure as San Charbel Malouf, but one of my blog viewers corrected me.

This concludes Part 13 of my Chiapas series. I hope you have enjoyed it and learned something about the wonderfully creative Maya of Zinacantan. I always welcome feedback, questions, and corrections. If you would like to do so, please leave your thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you use the Comments section and yours don't immediately appear, it is because I moderate all comments to eliminate spam and there is therefore a short delay.

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Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. goodmorning Jim, searching for pictures to add to an article about feather-art in Mexico, I found your interesting blog. I'd love to add details from two pictures about the wedding huipil (Sept 14, 2013) to my article, with your name of course. Do you allow and could you then send the pictures if they are around 2Mb? thank you for any reply, maria . schasfoort @ hotmail . com (no spaces)


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