Wednesday, July 29, 2009


This is an explanation of the terms indigenous / Indian / ethnic and traditional groups.

Inside Mexico, there exists racism directed at the indigenous peoples, while I consider it to be a perverse auto racism the word "indio" translated into English "Indian" has a marked negative connotation inside Mexico.. Since the Zapatista movement, there is a growing understanding that this enormous segment of the population can no longer be marginalized and victimized by the modern Mexican society ( Mestizo). The word "traditional" is a code word for indigenous and the word "indigena" or indigenous in English has been adopted as a respectable way to identify these ethnic groups. The word "ethnico" or ethnic is seldom used in Mexico to identify these groups, however in the American context the word could easily apply, due to a distinct language, dress and customs and food. The word "tribo" or tribe is never used except by Americans who bring their own dictionary to the discussion. I do not use this word at all.

In the context of this web site I often use the word Indian, this is directed to the English speakers and not intended to be a racist slur as used in Mexico.

I do use the word Indian however the word indigenous better.

Native American or North American Indian are probably also correct ,however people from the USA and Canada would assume we are talking about groups from the US or Canada because they don't think of Mexico of being part of North America.

Aboriginal is never used.

Meso American cultures are understood to be those cultures which are from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

Pre Cortezian are also understood to mean those cultures attacked by Cotez and the Spanish invaders.

Pre Columbian are all cultures that existed in the “new world” at the time Columbus encountered them.

Recently I have seem the word in Spanish "originarios" original peoples? Yet another way to describe these ethnic groups or a way to marginalize them again?

The purpose of the Mexican Indigenous Textile Project is the preservation of the textile memory of Mexico. During my travels, I have been finding more and more villages with only one person that continues to wear traditional indigenous costume. I can’t help but feel a sense of urgency in the documentation of these peoples. In deciding how best to distribute the information I decided to use the internet first and latter photo exhibits and finally printed material.

The internet is a new medium for study and resource development. In the past, as people developed books and eventually printed them, the process of revising them and updating was slow and difficult. Important works would sit on library shelves and few people would be able to see them and use the accumulated knowledge in them. Today all that has changed, now with the World Wide Web, we have ability to share and study a broad range of issues and topics.

Initially the Web site displayed textiles from my collection. However, it soon became clear, that the amount of cultural and textile information that I had accumulated to document the collection needed to be presented in an educational format. The web was the perfect media for this because the presentation of the textiles and cultural information could be incremental and graphical. Since then, the project develops information about the textiles from specific indigenous groups by field study. This information is then developed, edited and included in the web site. The purchase of textiles has been limited, to allow the limited resources available to be focus on documentation of the actual state of Mexican indigenous textiles.

The development of this web site requires extensive travel throughout Mexico. The indigenous groups included in this study are dispersed around the central part of Mexico. Most are located in areas that are just now getting paved roads and other modern conveniences. To reach most of these towns there is a drive of up to 9 hours and some are actually more depending on the conditions of the roads.
Travel in Mexico is some times difficult due to the lack of road signs or even worse conflicting signs. In most rural areas there are often unmark roads that can confound the driver, as you arrive at a cross roads there are inevitably no one to ask. My general rule is to ask everyone I see. After 6 years of documenting there are over 400 villages on the web site it continues to grow. Below is an explaination of the reasons that I continue this work.

For every example here there are thousand more in the field.

Mexican textiles have existed for more than 7000 years, but now in many villages’ traditional embroidered blouses, backstrap woven huipiles, loomed quechquemitls and belts are worn only by the grandmothers. Mexico's indigenous textile culture is in danger of extinction. The [embroidered] designs on blouses and huipiles are particular to specific towns and ethnic groups, so that the textiles identify the groups and villages that various textiles come from. Sometimes the marker is ribbons or the way hair is combed. The 7000 years old time line ends with these grandmothers.

These wonderful, colorful textiles link the indigenous peoples with culture and cosmovison of their native culture. As grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters sit with other family members to make the garments they discuss style and techniques but also more important points about behavior, customs of marriage, child birth, the herbs used for healing, how to make a tamales, etc. These links are lost when women stare into the one-eyed Cyclops that is the TV or wash floors in Mexico City.

When Cortez came to Mexico almost all the women wove cloth for garments and ceremonial use. It is natural that these talents gradually disappeared in the face of European machine made goods and now, over time, with the Asian dynamo and its inexpensive clothing. However it is not natural that the long cultural heritage of Mexico’s indigenous textiles be abandoned to the scrap heap of history, without some sort of attempt to conserve this incredibly rich cultural treasure.

The Spanish in all their colonial institutions drilled into the population that to be an Indian was the bottom of the heap. These biases have been passed down from the Spanish to the Mestizo population that now rules Mexico. This mestizo population has continued the discrimination of the Spanish towards the “indios.” It is no wonder that most Indians want to leave that part of them selves behind.

Below are some of the principal factors leading to the decline of the use and manufacture of indigenous textiles in Mexico. They are personal observations based on an intensive six-year study of the pueblos in Mexico.

1. Globalization

Around the world indigenous cultures are under pressure from the forces of modernization and globalization. In Mexico, years of government neglect and a persistent racism have created an economic desperation which has forced generations of men and women to flee the poverty of their communities. These indigenous people immigrate to the big cities of Mexico and the USA. Traditional dress marks them as indigenous, and in a society where being an “indian” puts you at the bottom of the social ladder, that is not good. So for decades, as people leave the communities, they leave behind their ancestral knowledge of how to weave and/orembroider and the social identity that the Mexican indigenous textiles and language provide.

Road building has created a really fast way for the indigenous population to abandon their villages for a better life just about anywhere else.

With the introduction of the internet TV and printed material, into these small communities the spread of western fashion has been accelerated.

Immigration –

A steady increase in the indigenous population and the child survival rate has led to increased migration from the villages to the cities in Mexico and the US.

Recently in the Sierra Zongolica the operator of an ECO tourism center with support from the CDI and other government institutions left to go to the US to pick oranges for a year.

In every village, without exception, people migrate to the US out of desperation, true they sometimes send money back to support the town festival but they return with ideas of modernization. Traditional dress is viewed as a marker of the old ways. They almost never wear traditional clothing again, and in some cases their wives also give up their garments to be modern.

In Santiago Mexquitlan this woman was photographed in traditional dress in January 2005. Six months later, when I returned to give her photos , she no longer was wearing her costume (uniform) . When asked why, she said that she worked in Toluca and no one wore costume there; and if she wore her costume, they ( the mestizos) would stare and laugh at her.

2. Rebellion of youth

Who are the Cholos? No, it is not another indigenous group, well not a historical one, they are young men and women who have left the village to work either in Mexico City or the US and return dressed as gang members who resent or hate their culture. They influence the younger kids by bad example. Recently in some Totonacan towns in the Sierra Norte of Mexico I obeserved a group of 20: some with spiked hair, dressed in black with pierced tongues and noses, they seem like they landed there from another planet. A village elder said to me that they come home and act badly and “se sienten hombre” which means they “feel like men.” [typical teenage rebellion?]

Some years ago in Santa Anna Hueytlalpan, Hidalgo, I noticed a black wrap skirt hanging on a cloths line. Inside the compound there were young women washing and chattering, we struck up a conversation. The conversation gradually drifted to the black wrap skirt, which turned out to be their grandmother’s. I asked if they had one? With a tone of ridicule in their voices they said they would never wear that since it made them look like grandmothers.

In the embroidery town of Zoatecpan, Xochitlan de VS [spell out], Puebla, I was shocked to see the rapid transition among younger women. Only four years ago it seemed that 80% of the people in town wore a traditional blouse. This Christmas at the town’s festival the number was down to 50% or less..

3. Media

On any given day there is not a word about indigenous communities or their customs in the mainstream media. TV is almost entirely filled with reasons not to wear indigenous clothing, as can be seen on almost all Telenovelas (soap operas_, Just imagine a woman who, after 35 years, gets a TV and watches “Rubi.” All she can think about is how ugly, fat, poor and forgotten she is and how much she wants to be someone else. .

Outside of Channel 22 and 11, both public educational channels, there is not a word about indigenous people, almost nothing about indigenous dress, and sometimes the only visual hint that there are 15 million indigenous people in Mexico is a vase or some sort of handicraft as a prop on the studio set.

In the Casas de Cultura (cultural centers) we can find a smattering of presentations dedicated to indigenous peoples and their crafts. The Museum of Popular Art does a reasonable job of presenting these forgotten people.

As with many other social and cultural events in Mexico the presence of such exhibits in Mexico City and beyond are under- reported. Sometimes I take the metro and get off at every just stop to see what notices have been posted.

5 Garment substitutions based on costs

In the early 1970s during the heyday of the hippie peasant-wear fad, I exported ten thousand[?] garments a month. These were gathered from all over Mexico and shipped to Nuevo Laredo, where my friend Caesar would consolidate and drive the goods into the US. One day I arrived to do my customs entry and Cesar had on the most stunning Guayabera shirt. Since I was buying Gauyabera shirts wholesale at $15 from the Yucatan it piqued my interest.

Hey Caesar , where did you get that amazing shirt? “

He replied he’d got it in Laredo for seven dollars; it is made in Taiwan”

I will never forget that and what it meant for textiles from Mexico! This was 1972.

6. Loss of heritage skills like weaving and embroidery.

In the town of Huehuetla, Hidalgo, Maria. a Tepehua weaver, makes four quechquemitls a year. They sell for 1000 pesos, about a hundred dollars each.. That is out of the reach of all but a few people in the town. Compounding the issue, she is the only weaver left who can weave a quechquemitl

Maria’s daughters wear western cloths, speak Tepehua and do not know how to weave the quechquemitl. Maria says that it is too much work for them to weave.

In San Miguel Ameyalco, Lema, about 30 minutes’ ride west of Mexico City,, there are a small number of weavers who use ancestral skills to produce indigenous crafts for sale. Some years ago the town was famous for ayates (carrying cloths), used for agricultural purposes. When I first met Maria de Jesus she lamented the fact that she knew 750 designs on the backstrap loom but her daughter was taught in some handicraft school how to make pictures from colored straw. So when Maria passes awaythose [designs will disappear with her?]

In the Mixtec weaving communities along the coast, traditional costume is confined to the oldest generation. Weaving skills have been passed on, and there is a large number of women dedicated to weaving, using traditional methods but not so many traditional garments. There are also garments made to look like traditional ones but were never actually worn or used before.[mention the role of government programs in designing and promoting crafts? or explain how these came to be]

Among Mixe in Tamazulapan there has been a rapid decline in the people wearing the white huipil and the dark blue wrap skirt which, in turn, has reduced the number of weavers who make these items. Some have turned to making reboso for resale.

Quality degradation – When I lived in Ocotlan de Morelos, Oaxaca, in the 1970’s many Zapotec women worked the famous San Antonio wedding dress, but not as a dress; it was used as an undershirt. During the late 1960’s and through the 1970’s the style of embroidery was made into a dress. The Zapotec embroiderers of the day had a polished skil,l and the dress actually had some cultural meaning. Today the sad quality of these dresses leaves a person who has seen and knows the classic blouse or dress ADJECTIVE? when only a glimmer of its past glory. They continue to sell but the younger generation no longer uses them. From time to time an older woman will make one for her daughter to wear

Changes in materials

The quechquemitls from Chachahuantla, Puebla, were originally a hand-knotted lace. They then moved to a commercial material with heavy machine embroidery. Recently the women have been switching over to a solid, store- bought gauze quechquemitl.

It is almost impossible to find 100% cotton material in any indigenous blouse Even in traditional huipiles synthetic fiber is slipping in. There are a few obvious reasons for this: cotton costs more than cotton / synthetic blends and colors are faster in the synthetic yarns.

The yarns can also be embroidered two or three times faster than the traditional cotton thread, whichmakes the blouses easier to commercialize.

In many cases the quechquemitl is a key indicator of how things are going , among the Totonacan women of the Sierra Norte of Puebla. hand-woven or knotted quechquemitls have been entirely replaced with store bought lace. Only ten years ago the quechquemitls of store-bought lace had embroidery on them.

In the municipality of Zongozotla, Veracruz, I noticed a fashion transformation happening. Instead of the white store-bought lace some women were using colored lace for their quechquemitls. The thing is that the white lace was a direct descendent of the back-strap woven cotton quechquemitl, which is also white. The quechquemitl made from colored, machine-made lace loses that connection.

The church –

In the Sierra Zongolica of Veracruz, road building has help people to escape the poverty of the region. Recently, in a village outside of Xoxocotla, I found no women wearing traditional costume. Apparently the church had been telling the women for years that it made them look Indian.

Summary – The movement of indigenous people towards the mainstream of Mexican society is well underway. The education system, government programs, road building, TV and immigration all play their part. The long history of discrimination and marginalization plays a large part in the desire NOT to be viewed as indigenous by the younger generation.

These young people relate more to modernism as an escape, than to ancestral duties and customs,

they gladly changed from poor Indians to poor Mexicans. They do this by not speaking the ancestral language, not dressing in indigenous specific ways and denying their heritage.