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The Textiles of Jolom Mayaetik

For the first time in the Bay Area, lovers of handwoven textiles will be treated to an extensive exhibition of work by contemporary Maya backstrap-loom weavers.  The weavers live in rural indigenous communities in the highlands of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.  They formed the Jolom Mayaetik weavers’ cooperative in 1996. They continue an ancient weaving tradition passed on for many generations and learned from their mothers and grandmothers.  The San Francisco Airport Museum will open Empowering Threads: Textiles of Jolom Mayaetik on August 26 at the International Terminal Galleries to be on display through March, 2018.

Jolom Maya pillows ornamented with ancient Maya sapo (frog) and star symbols

Jolom Mayaetik pillows ornamented with ancient Maya sapo (frog) and star symbols


Before the exhibition closes, a history of the cooperative titled Weaving Chiapas: Maya Women’s Lives in a Changing World will be released by the University of Oklahoma Press. Published in Spanish in 2007 under the title Voces que tejen y bordan historias: Testimonios de las Mujeres de Jolom Mayaetik, the book contains interviews conducted over four years with members of Jolom Mayaetik.  It provides a glimpse into the memories and daily lives of women still in touch with an ancient indigenous culture, at a moment when that culture is abruptly being drawn into the global mainstream.

The indigenous women whose work will be exhibited at the SF Airport Museum or who participated in creating the book were born into Maya communities not yet linked to the urban world by radio, the telephone, television, or computers.  That is no longer the case as the English edition of their book goes to press.  Some of them now use cellphones and have access to the radio—during the Zapatista uprising, radios were an effective mode of organizing, in which several of the women included in the book participated- and some have learned to use a computer. The book was conceived by the members of the cooperative, who wished to document their life experiences, and was facilitated by members of the Mexican nonprofit organization K’inal Antsetik.  Formed to advise and support the weavers when they created their cooperative in 1996, K’inal Antsetik now includes the indigenous past presidents of the cooperative, who work on documenting and sustaining cultural traditions alongside the economic self-help projects K’inal Antsetik supports throughout Chiapas.

Cecelia Ruiz weaving

Elvia Gomez López weaving at The Gardener in Berkeley

The intent of the book’s translators was to preserve the voices of these rural indigenous women, some of whom were unable to continue their schooling after the sixth grade and communicate only in their native Maya language or hesitantly in Spanish, as well as others who are bilingual and speak fluent Spanish in addition to their native language.  In their reflections about how they learned to weave, the women describe learning from their mothers, not always willingly.  Some talk about the differences between weaving in cotton, which the majority of them do, and of weaving with woolen yarn.  The tradition of spinning local native cotton is described by several weavers but is no longer practiced.  The weavers of cotton now purchase commercially spun and dyed cotton thread.  In the colder highland communities of Chamula and Bautista Chico, weavers raise and care for sheep, shear and wash the wool, and spin it to weave and embroider clothing and blankets. Some of these weavers dye their embroidery yarn with vegetal dyes.

 Three generations

Oventik Grande, mother and daughter weavers, 2010

Each community has its particular clothing design traditions, and women from different communities can be readily identified by their style of dress. As commercial clothing becomes increasingly available and travel more common, the local differences are becoming diluted.  However, most of the weavers continue to wear the indigo-dyed cotton or wool skirts, handwoven sashes, and the distinctive huipiles (blouses) traditionally woven in their own community. As the rural communities are increasingly drawn into a cash economy, and as commercial clothing and used clothing provided by charity groups have become more readily available, the men have mostly ceased to wear their traditional clothing except at fiestas and religious celebrations. The undermining of the weaving tradition has been an unfortunate side effect of charitable donations of used clothing to indigenous communities, both in Latin America and in Africa. One wishes instead that an effort would be made to help traditional weavers to find markets for their handwoven products so their traditions and cultural diversity would not be lost.


Tzeltal Maya weavers in their traditional huipiles in Yochib, Chiapas, Mexico 2016

As the cooperative has endured and prospered, its members have gained increasing control over their own lives. Some of the problems that darkened their lives, described in the early chapters of the book, have diminished. Because of their lightheartedness, their delight in teasing and joking, an outsider encountering these women would not guess the difficulties some have experienced.  Concluding the book is a memoir of Rosa López, one of the founders of the cooperative whose life was prematurely and brutally cut short before the successes of the cooperative had begun to be realized.  There is no doubt that some of the women’s difficulties have been ameliorated thanks to their activism. For example, during the two decades since they founded the cooperative, there has been a shift away from the use of hard liquor in many transactions in the indigenous communities and thus a reduction in drunkenness and domestic violence.  The Zapatista Women’s Revolutionary Law has been an influence on governance in Chiapas, as the increasing presence of women in leadership positions in civil society demonstrates.  Some have chosen not to marry or have refused a marriage that would interfere with their independence.  Others have married men who are in sympathy with greater independence for women.

Jolom Elvia in Berkeley 2015

Elvia Gomez López, president of Jolom Mayaetik, weaving in Berkeley in 2015

To continue their weaving tradition brings these women satisfaction as well as income, though some struggle to find time for weaving amidst their family obligations.  It is encouraging that some of the most accomplished weavers are young mothers who have managed to find a balance in their lives that allows them to weave and to participate in their cooperative in addition to caring for their children and supporting their husbands’ work.  One of the cooperative’s current concerns is to build a fund to contribute to the support of elderly weavers. Additionally, the cooperative has initiated a program, Maestras Artesanas, to honor the weavers who have achieved great skill and to organize workshops and forums for them to convey their skills and experience to young weavers.  The centerpiece of the exhibition at the San Francisco Airport Museum is the muestrario—demonstration tapestry—woven by one of the master weavers, Magdalena López López, that records the many different patterns she has learned as well as new patterns she has created.

Jolom Magdalena

Master weaver Magdalena López López showing her tapestry in progress, Bayalemó, Chiapas, 2015.

To see weavers in an indigenous culture manage to respect, continue, and adapt their traditions in the face of both political and cultural intrusions is deeply gratifying. To see what beauty these weavers create on their simple, portable looms is a heartening and satisfying experience.

The exhibition in the International Terminal of San Francisco Airport is easily reached via BART, on a San Francisco Airport train.

Charlene M. Woodcock is the former architecture editor at the University of California Press and friend of Jolom Mayaetik weavers’ cooperative since 2000.

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